WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — On Monday, work continued on The Greenbrier property as this city prepared for the arrival of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
There were the beeps from construction equipment backing up. There were the hissing sounds of sprinklers and the harsh sounds of hammering. Inside the 55,000-square-foot AdvoCare Performance Center, trunks were moved and unpacked. Vacuums were running.
Yet the $30 million training facility project, spearheaded by Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, was unveiled. Quarterback Drew Brees’ helmet and locker were in place. The dream of hosting the NFL team — which arrives Wednesday — is nearing completion. The project was announced March 13.
“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice said on Monday. “This was done in a little over 90 days with some dirt moved before that. It’s a beautiful facility. I know the Saints are really excited and we’re out of our minds [excited] to have them and to have them in West Virginia.”
The jewel of the facility is the chandelier-encrusted Performance Center, which houses offices, training rooms, lockers and a dining terrace. Off to the side is a tent dining area with air conditioning for when it’s too hot to eat outside.
Bumping up against the facility are two natural grass fields with field goal posts in three of the end zones. On Monday, stands were being raised. Below the fields and facility was a field with synthetic turf.
“I think we’re in for something special this week,” Justice said. “Maybe even bigger than the golf tournament.”
The resort and Saints announced a “Picnic with the Saints” promotion for fans this coming Saturday. Hamburgers and hot dogs, etc., will be sold and fans can obtain autographs and pictures. A limited number of tickets will be sold for $10 via greenbrier.com/picnic.
“I know we as a state and Virginia as a neighboring state ... will take the Saints in and they will be our team,” Justice said. “For us to take ownership of this is monumental to me.”
The team will hit town on Wednesday and take a bus tour of Lewisburg around 4 p.m. (They will officially report on Thursday.) The Greenbrier is hoping fans will turn out on the streets Wednesday evening to welcome the players.
Fans wishing to attend open practices are to park at the State Fair of West Virginia fairgrounds. Parking and admission are free, but there will be a $5 transportation fee per adult and a $2 charge for children under 12.
All practice sessions this weekend (8:50-11:40 a.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m.) are open to the public beginning Friday. Autographs may be had after each practice, although they are not guaranteed. Fans should, however, check the team’s website (www.neworleanssaints.com), Twitter (@Saints) or Facebook (facebook.com/neworleanssaints) accounts for updates.
There is expected to be seating for around 1,500, with standing room as well. No seats can be reserved.
Justice, flanked by New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis, said the team is on a mission.
“They don’t want to get away from football when they’re here,” he said. “They’re dialed in. This is serious stuff to them. Coach [Sean] Payton told me five days ago that Bill Parcells always said the first month back with your team is overwhelmingly the most important time of the season. They’re going to be dialed in and working ... They’re going to be kind and sign some autographs, but they want their time.”
Although set up for the Saints, the complex will be used for other occasions, like weddings, conferences and receptions, when the team is not in town. And the versatility of the complex has led to other questions.
“I’ve been asked if we’re going to try to get the Super Six [high school football championships] here,” Justice said. “I’ve been asked about preseason baseball teams playing here, maybe with the [Pittsburgh] Pirates. I’ve been asked about universities holding some spring practices here. Today, though, we have no stands, so there are all kinds of holes in those buckets.”
Justice said “when it’s all said and done” the project will cost around $30 million, although he’s receiving funding from a tourism bill signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Justice said there will be returns, if not immediate.
“This time of year we’re busy anyway. [The hotel] is filled up anyway,” Justice said. “There will be intangible profitability to The Greenbrier all year from this. It will be exposure.”
Justice pointed to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Although the city of Richmond is struggling to make payments on a sweetheart deal to host the Washington Redskins’ training camp, the paper pointed to visibility.
“The Redskins contracted with media monitoring services TVEyes, Meltwater and Repucom,’’ the article said, “which concluded that the city received $27.8 million in media coverage by hosting the camp, and that ‘2.95 billion unique visitors viewed online/print coverage of the 2013 Bon Secours-Richmond Training Camp in July and August.’ ”
That may stretch the imagination, but it certainly pleases The Greenbrier’s owner.
“Think about that for West Virginia,” Justice said. “Forget The Greenbrier. Think what that means to us as a state. That’s what’s big to me.”
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.