NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Teakwood cabinets, polished granite countertops, fresh carpeting and new furniture were installed in the Louisiana Superdome's private suites during the offseason. Four cavernous club lounges were refurbished in a style reminiscent of a contemporary boutique hotel lobby.
Nearly a year to the day since it reopened, and just over two years since it was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, the 31-year-old Superdome has never looked so good. Nor has it meant as much to a city that, with each nationally televised game, is recapturing its status as a prime big-event destination.
Again this season, the NFL was featuring the Saints' regular-season home opener on ``Monday Night Football.'' This year, however, it seemed as though more people were concerned with how the 0-2 Saints would play the 1-1 Tennessee Titans than the wisdom of spending nearly $200 million to restore a football stadium in a city where so much devastation remains.
``The ripple effect with the Superdome is important,'' said Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitor's Bureau. ``Groups of professionals come in for special events and see it's back in business. And when we have a game like tonight, (broadcasters) do cutaways for commercials and show different parts of the city, riverboats cruising on the Mississippi River or people having a good time in French Quarter.
``It sends the signal that people are here and living life.''
A typical sold-out game puts 2,500 people to work. The reopening on Sept. 25, 2006 - in time for entire NFL and college football seasons, including the New Orleans Bowl and Sugar Bowl - provided a needed boost in business to area hotels, restaurants and clubs.
Perhaps as important was the morale boost it provided a city where many residents have dealt with various degrees of loss and depression.
``There's no better atmosphere than ``Monday Night Football'' in New Orleans,'' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Indeed, the Superdome is becoming synonymous with good times again, in stark contrast to the way it looked after Katrina.
When skies had cleared and the wind died down after the August 2005 storm, the sight of suffering masses baking in the sun, isolated by brown water lapping through broken car windows in surrounding streets, was demoralizing enough.
Here was a stadium that for three decades gave so much to the city, hosting Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, Mardi Gras balls, legendary concerts, national political conventions and even Pope John Paul II. And it was torn up, moldy and polluted with garbage and raw sewage. Those who were there cannot forget the overpowering stench produced by such squalid conditions in the stagnant summer air.
When the buses finally took stranded storm victims away, and all that was left was the dank mess inside, officials such as Doug Thornton, vice president of the company that manages the state-owned stadium, began to confront a tough set of questions: Could it be fixed? Was it worth fixing?
Working with consultants, Thornton determined the dome, with Gov. Kathleen Blanco's help, could not only be saved but improved through a combination of bond refinancing and available federal aid.
Still, as Thornton threw himself into a massive project he would finish even before rebuilding his own flood-damaged house, he faced questions, including from his own wife, about whether a football stadium should be such a high priority.
The Thorntons had the resources to rebuild their house near the 17th Street Canal, but many of their neighbors needed help.
Denise Thornton set up an office in their home, creating a clearing house of information and supplies to help residents learn how to obtain required building permits and find help to gut water-logged homes and clear debris, among other things.
``In the early going, I'd come home and tell her about things we were able to accomplish and there was frustration on her part that she couldn't see action on the ground in our neighborhood,'' Doug Thornton recalled.
``What really made a believer out of her was the day we reopened the dome. She saw the excitement and the raw emotion, the impact this building had on people coming back into it for the first time,'' he continued. ``She realized this is really something special that needed to be done, and thank God it got done quickly.''
The dome is an increasingly busy place again. There's the sold-out, 10-game home schedule of the Saints, including preseason games. There's Tulane's home schedule, which includes next Saturday's game with No. 2 LSU, likely to draw another big crowd.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Grambling and Southern meet for the nationally televised Bayou Classic; the state high school championships follow. And from late December through January, the Superdome becomes the first venue to host three college bowl games in a season: the New Orleans Bowl, Sugar Bowl and BCS national championship.
``It's a better building now, a lot better than it was before the storm, which I think is one of the real blessings that has come out of Katrina,'' Thornton said. ``Out of this disaster came opportunity, and in hindsight, many would agree it was absolutely the right decision at the right time ... not only for the symbolism, but the economic benefit. Can you imagine what happens to the hotels if we don't have the Saints, the Bayou Classic, the BCS championship? All of those events were at risk.''

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