One such development, Columbia Parc, replaced St. Bernard public housing with a mixed-income neighborhood.

"There used to be shooting and killing, people used to be on drugs," said retiree Sandra Heard, sitting on her porch reading and listening to the radio Tuesday. "Now they screen you. If you have a criminal record, you can't come in here."

Heard, who had a pot of red beans going on the stove, was thrilled to have the Super Bowl in town.

"We were so excited. The streets are all nice, and they're fixing everything up," she said. "The only thing better would be if the Saints were in it."

Still, she can't help but wish that more money could be diverted to residents.

"They focused on the Superdome and not the poor people," she said. "We have too many homeless people. The Superdome brings money into town, but we never see it."

The $366 million renovation of the Superdome has had its detractors, said Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, the stadium's management company. One was his wife, who started a grass-roots nonprofit to help residents rebuild damaged homes, using her experience with their flooded house.

"She would rail on me, 'How can the state put emphasis on a stadium when Lakeview, when the Ninth Ward need so much help?'" Thornton recalled. "Everything was in chaos in the city. Roads, bridges, schools were needed. Why on earth would we give priority to a football stadium?"

For Thornton, a leader in the fight to renovate rather than raze the Superdome after Katrina, there were two answers: symbolism and economics.

"We felt if we could turn the image of the Superdome around, it would inspire confidence that rebuilding could take place," he said. "And we know New Orleans is a tourism-based economy, and sports and entertainment are a big component of the hospitality industry. Without the Superdome, without the Saints, that goes away."

The costs were borne by state and federal funds, as well as money from the National Football League and stadium authority bonds, he said. The Superdome reopened with a Saints game in 2006, bringing cheer to the wounded city, and the stadium was soon back to hosting major sports and entertainment events — just as it had since opening in 1975. According to the Super Bowl host committee, major sporting events held in New Orleans since Katrina have had an economic impact of more than the $1 billion.

Still, the pride is tinged with melancholy.

"The dome saved thousands of lives, but 30,000 people lived for four or five days without running water or electricity. We were trapped in here," Thornton said. "They were bringing people in here from rooftops. It would scar our city for a long time."

When he left the Superdome by helicopter after everyone had been evacuated, Thornton took one long, hard look at the stadium, thinking it would be his last.

"I saw it in the distance, I saw the water glistening and smoke billowing from some fire in the background and I thought, 'This is it.' It was devastating," he said. "I was pretty emotional about it. Would we be able to recover? Could the city recover?"

That New Orleans is hosting this year's Super Bowl is one answer. The world's most watched sporting event will put the post-Katrina city in the spotlight as never before, Thornton said, and he's eager for the platform to showcase the new New Orleans.

"We really have a good story to tell. It's not about the dome, it's about what the dome represents — the hard work, the determination and the creativity of New Orleans," he said. "Out of disaster sometimes comes opportunity. This is an opportunity for New Orleans to reinvent ourselves."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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