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Dome's back, but not heart of Big Easy.

Byline: George Schroeder The Register-Guard

NEW ORLEANS - Every day on his way to work, Eddie Hilliard drives by the Louisiana Superdome.

He knows the Saints are marching in there again. He knows after a $200 million renovation, the stadium is better than ever. He's heard how the rebuilding symbolizes the rebirth of a city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

But Hilliard isn't sure the analogy holds up. "It's nice they've got it back,' Hilliard says. `But it's not back to normal.'

I was invited here this week, as part of a delegation from the Football Writers Association of America, to see the preparations for the Sugar Bowl and the BCS championship game. Organizers also hoped we would carry good news back to our various corners of the country.

So let me say up front: New Orleans is ready and able to host the big games. And this is big news. I was among the many who doubted it would be able to reclaim its status as a big-event destination.

Concerns about crime are valid, but the tourist sections are about as safe as they ever were. And the French Quarter has actually been cleaned up a bit - not in character, but in sanitation. This means the trash gets picked up more often.

For tourists, New Orleans might be back. And sports might have had a lot to do with that. After the Saints returned to the Dome last year in that Monday Night Football game, travel agents' phones started ringing again. Suddenly, groups wanted to bring their conventions to town.

`It was sports carrying a city on its back,' says Steve Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Sugar Bowl and the BCS title game will have an economic impact of more than $400 million. Perhaps more important, say organizers, is the positive emotional impact.

Site of so many big moments in sports, the Superdome became the epicenter of Katrina's negative imagery. When the waters rose, the building became a `refuge of last resort' for more than 20,000 people.

Chamber of horrors might be more like it. For six days, they simmered in a hot, humid, stinking shell. No electricity. No running water. At times, no order.

`It was wet, and nasty,' says Danny Vincens, the Superdome's assistant general manager.

So wet and nasty that afterward, engineers doubted the stadium could be saved. Or rather, if it was worth saving. This sounds like what some were saying about New Orleans.

But the Superdome is back. After a tour, I'm convinced it's better than ever. And the movers and shakers I met at a party Thursday night kept saying the city is on the same path.

Here, Eddie Hilliard might disagree. I met Eddie a while back, not long after Katrina's floodwaters receded. He was a valet at a downtown hotel.

He was also living at the hotel. His home on New Orleans' east side had been lost to the flood.

Eddie still works at the hotel but rents a place in Prairieville, 50 miles away. This is the new reality in New Orleans. Before Katrina, Eddie's monthly mortgage was $840. After Katrina, he couldn't find an apartment for under $1,150.

`There are a lot of people that are not back,' he says.

`They can't get back.'

The metro population has steadied at about 1.1 million, down from 1.3 million. But the shift has been away from the city itself. Before Katrina, New Orleans had 480,000 residents; now it's more like 280,000.

Vast portions of the city remain uninhabitable. Rebirth in those areas is painfully slow, and in many cases on hold.

So keep this in mind when you watch the national championship game next January. It's bigger than a Saints game, Perry says, and more important than a convention.

It is `sort of like the ultimate symbol of the city's rebirth.'

Hilliard, whose son, Corey, was an offensive lineman at Oklahoma State, will be watching, too. From his new place in Prairieville.

`I ain't downing it,' he says of sports' impact. `I'm just saying, it ain't everything for the city.

`They can host it without all the people. But there's nobody here.'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 21, 2007
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