NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The beignets at Cafe Du Monde tasted especially sweet. A French Market musician pounded out a peppy tune on his keyboard. Smiling – if somewhat weary – revelers strolled through the narrow streets of the French Quarter in their Reggie Bush jerseys and “Home Sweet Dome” T-shirts. “What A Show!” the local newspaper blared across its front page.

Life in New Orleans had an air of normalcy Tuesday, the morning after the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome with a rousing, inspiring victory.

But plenty of difficult questions remain for this team and its hurricane-ravaged city.

The population is still less than half what it was before Hurricane Katrina. Who knows if enough deep-pocketed companies will return to buy up those pricey club seats and luxury boxes. And the Superdome is still a 31-year-old stadium – all spruced up, to be sure, but ancient in the what-new-stadium-have-you-built-for-me-lately NFL.

“In terms of the Saints’ future, we’ve got a ways to go,” acknowledged Doug Thornton, who runs the Superdome and oversees its $185 million renovation. “There’s no doubt the public will support the team. But there’s always that issue of the economic base, the corporate base.”

The support was certainly there Monday night. An earsplitting crowd of 70,000 packed the Superdome for the Saints’ 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in a showdown of unbeaten NFC South rivals.

New Orleans (3-0) has first place all to itself and a reason to feel proud of just how far it’s come since Katrina flooded the Big Easy nearly 13 months ago.

The Superdome is the most noticeable symbol of the halting rebirth. A scene of misery and shame in the days after the hurricane, it now has a new roof, improved scoreboards, larger video screens and several fresh coast of paint.

“New life has been breathed into this place,” Thornton said. “Out of the destruction came opportunity. You never know how things will turn out. It’s an ironic twist of faith.”

For now, there’s no talk of moving the Saints to another city, not with the NFL’s commitment to having the team serve as a catalyst for the massive rebuilding job and the fans’ overwhelming show of support in the wake of the storm. The Superdome is sold out for the season – the first time that’s ever happened – and once-reviled owner Tom Benson seems to have made an uneasy truce.

with the team’s passionate fans. He even broke out his parasol and did the “Benson Boogie” on his way out of the stadium after the Saints’ dominating victory.

“This stadium has got to be as good as many stadiums around the NFL,” Thornton insisted. “It’s not the best, but it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack.”

Even so, the refurbished stadium isn’t likely to squelch talk of the need for more money-generating improvements. Before Katrina, Benson angered the fan base by demanding a new stadium or a much more profitable deal with the Superdome if he was to keep the Saints in New Orleans. The storm didn’t totally blow away all those thorny issues.

Thornton is already making plans for a new round of renovations that might address some of Benson’s long-term concerns. He wants to widen the concourse around the lower deck to create better sightlines and more space for concession stands, restrooms and other amenities. He looks toward the towering, largely barren walls above each end zone and envisions several decks of profitable new luxury suites.

“We still face challenges in rebuilding our homes and businesses, but this game … is proof of what we can accomplish if we work together,” said Rita Benson LeBlanc, the team’s executive vice president. “The Saints have been a unifying force in this community for 40 years now, and we are proud to use this occasion to announce to the world that New Orleans is open for business.”

The players are certainly doing their part, already matching their wins from all of last season, a dismal year in which “home” games had to be played in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and East Rutherford because the Superdome was in ruins.

“We have such an appreciation for being in this situation and having this opportunity,” said Steve Gleason, whose blocked punt just 90 seconds into the game gave the Saints their first touchdown. “It’s such a responsibility for us. This is special.”


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