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Economic expectations high for Saints camp

On July 27, the New Orleans Saints opened their preseason training camp on the campus of Millsaps College. Last season following the team’s first training camp at Millsaps, the Saints were the feel-good story of the National Football League, returning to Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and making it all the way to the conference championship.

So, expectations are high among the Saints and their fans for the 2007 season. And the greater Jackson area is hoping for a big economic win during the second Saints training camp from the wallets of team personnel, fans and the media. And speaking of the media, the metropolitan area is also banking on some more free advertising via worldwide press coverage.

“It puts Jackson on the world stage,” said Mara Hartmann, manager of communications and public relations at the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “I’ve personally been contacted for information by the media from all over the country. It is like that old credit card commercial said — it’s priceless.”

No game this year

Hartmann said she showed up early of the morning of July 27 to pick up her credentials, hoping to beat the crowd. She was pleasantly surprised at the long lines already there when she arrived, and noted car tags from as far away as Georgia and North Carolina.

Not surprising, most of the license plates were from Mississippi and Louisiana, and it would seem that the training camp is mainly a drive-in event. Area hotels contacted reported a negligible increase in room-nights sold as the camp opened.

Downtown Jackson’s Fairview Inn Bed and Breakfast proprietor Peter Sharp had seen a couple of rooms reserved by Saints supporters. Earl Gaylor, owner of the Edison Walthall Hotel, also in downtown Jackson, said a few Saints players booked rooms the night before camp opened, but said the camp had not brought a bevy of lodgers.

Even Cabot Lodge Jackson Millsaps, located adjacent to the college, had not seen a throng of lodgers the morning of opening day of the camp. General manager Tom Brown said the camp did boost reservations, but the hotel still had rooms available.

According to the hoteliers, this was the same situation last year. Room-nights did not increase from the Saints training camp in 2006. But they did eventually see stellar sales, not from the training camp, but from the preseason football game played in Jackson between the Saints and Indianapolis Colts at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium last August. Brown said the Cabot Lodge Jackson Millsaps was booked completely for the game, and other hoteliers contacted reported a lift from the game.

Unfortunately, there is no preseason game scheduled this year. Thus, spending in the metropolitan area is expected to be less than last year’s inaugural camp.

Restaurants, Millsaps beaming

According to the CVB, the economic impact of the aforementioned Saints-Colts preseason game was conservatively estimated at nearly $8 million. The dollars-and-cents impact of the training camp was not assessed, however, so it will be unknown just how big a minus the lack of a preseason game will have on this year. There is nothing to compare the numbers to.

That is not to say that there no one is giddy about the return of the Saints this year. Area restaurants were big winners last year, seeing a hefty boost in sales during both the camp and the preseason game. And they were anticipating more of the same, though they, too, have no hard figures to compare to.

“I can’t quantify it,” said Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, “but I can tell you this — no one is crying because the Saints are here again.”

John Dennery, owner of downtown Jackson’s Dennery’s Restaurant, said he wasn’t sure how many new patrons the restaurant served during last year’s camp, but hoped what patrons the eatery did attract both in 2006 and this year would eat again in the restaurant in the future.

David Belden, general manager of Chili’s on Interstate 55 in North Jackson, had no numbers but did have tangible evidence of the camp’s impact on his sales figures. The night before the interview for this story, Saints running back and Mississippi native Deuce McAllister had come in for a bite to eat. And he pointed to a table in the lounge occupied by patrons wearing Saints jerseys. He said last year’s event was point-of-sale-friendly, and anticipated more of the same this year.

One entity that does have hard numbers and is excited about the Saints’ return is Millsaps. The private college made a significant investment to lure the Saints last year, and it is more than happy with the results.

In 2006, total attendance for all practices was estimated at 10,000 people. A minimum of 175 media representatives was at each practice, and the Saints family picnic, open to families of players, coaches and staff, drew 500-550 people.

Between players, coaches and staff, the Saints utilized 183 Millsaps dorm rooms.

Millsaps is anticipating even bigger numbers this year. According to the college, the first day of practice drew an estimated 1,000 fans and more than 200 media personnel.

The Saints seem just as happy with the Millsaps relationship. During a pre-camp press conference this year, Saints head coach Sean Payton praised Millsaps’ facilities, staff and service, and said the small-college atmosphere was perfect for the team’s preparations for the upcoming season.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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