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New Orleans invites Sugar Bowl tourists

The Sugar Bowl is coming back to its home in New Orleans Jan. 3 after missing a year due to damage at the Superdome from Hurricane Katrina.
Brian Hebert holds hands with Brena Breaux as his daughter Kimberlie Hebert sits on his shoulders on New Year's Eve in New Orleans' Jackson Square, Dec. 31, 2005.Cheryl Gerber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Sugar Bowl is coming back to its home in New Orleans Jan. 3 after missing a year due to damage at the Superdome from Hurricane Katrina.

The city is hoping the college football game will be accompanied by a surge in tourism, even though many fans of this year's game already live in the area. The match will be played between Louisiana State University and Notre Dame.

And although the game between the LSU Tigers and the Irish falls on a Wednesday, tourism officials are inviting fans to come a few days early for the city's New Year's Eve celebration, which includes entertainment in Jackson Square, fireworks over the Mississippi River, and the dropping of a giant, lighted gumbo pot from atop the Jax Brewery at midnight.

Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that the weekend before the big game also includes an NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in New Orleans.

"I think regionally, people are going to be thrilled to come in and make an event out of it and have the New Orleans experience they've been missing," said Fred Sawyers, general manager of the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel.

Last season the Sugar Bowl was played in Atlanta because Katrina caused severe damage to the Superdome. The dome underwent a $185 million renovation and reopened in time for the New Orleans Saints to return to the city this season.

When the Sugar Bowl matchup was announced Dec. 3, the Hilton and other hotels saw an upswing in reservations, and some extending from New Year's Eve, but they also reported cancellations from schools not picked to play in New Orleans.

"Many thought Arkansas would play here, that Florida would play here, so we had some cancellations," said Darrius Gray, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.

Having LSU in the Sugar Bowl can only be an emotional boost to New Orleans, but how much impact fans will have economically will depend largely on turnout and the duration of their stay.

Those in the hospitality industry are hoping for a turnout like that in 2004 - the last time LSU was in the Sugar Bowl, and the last time it was played in New Orleans - when the Tigers won the Bowl Championship Series by knocking off Oklahoma 21-14.

"We were all pleasantly surprised by the participation last time," Gray said.

Some say two out-of state teams would have generated more booked hotel rooms and tourism dollars, but Rod West, chairman of the LSU Board of Supervisors, disagrees.

Every time LSU has played in the Sugar Bowl, "the nay-sayers were proven wrong," West said. Helping matters this year, he said, is that many LSU fans were prepared to spend "upward of 10 grand to go to the Rose Bowl," in Pasadena, Calif., in the event that LSU had been chosen to play there.

That money, West says, will now be spent in New Orleans.

"Just with the savings of not having to go to Pasadena, I have no doubt they will come here," he said. "The cost of travel was reduced dramatically. It's a regional location. More people will come, stay longer and spend more money."

The number of rooms available in the city is still down since Katrina. At least one of the city's major hotels, the Hyatt Regency, remains closed because of storm damage. Roughly 9,000 of the city's 38,000 hotel rooms before Katrina are still unavailable, said Denise Estopinal, spokeswoman for the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association.

West and others say it's only fitting that LSU is one of the teams competing in what will be another milestone in the city's recovery. It also doesn't hurt that Notre Dame will bring its national following to this heavily Catholic city, he said.

This will be the Tigers' 12th Sugar Bowl and the first for Notre Dame since 1992. The Sugar Bowl typically has an attendance of about 75,000 and an average annual impact of $175 million, according to Sugar Bowl officials.

West's loyalties in the game are divided. He is a Notre Dame football letterman and member of that school's 1988 national championship team. He's also married, for 12 years now, to LSU basketball All-American Madeline West.

"It certainly presents a unique set of circumstances given my interest, my affinity with both schools," he said with a chuckle, refusing to say which team he'll be rooting for.

"I'm rooting for a great game. That's all you're going to get from me."