Lewis: Smoothie King Center has roots in New Orleans

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Smoothie King Center.

Sounds about right.

The Dome was one of the world’s best-known structures on the day it opened in 1975 and has since become the symbol of New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery. Thus, when its naming rights were finally sold it was to an appropriately prestigious entity.

But the Dome’s adjacent little brother has never advanced past its former generic name label and has many folks wondering if there was a sale at Home Depot because it looks like it’s built of bathroom tiles.

So when the announcement was made Wednesday that Smoothie King had reached a 10-year deal to rename former New Orleans Arena, there were the expected titters over things like the Pelicans’ owner/vice-chairman of the board Rita Benson Leblanc declaring how proud she was that the new name denotes, “a healthy and active lifestyle.”

When’s the last time a product coming out of New Orleans was touted that way? How would she have spun Lucky Dog Arena and Daiquiri Shoppe Center?

“It sounds kind of silly,” Jerry Wetzel of Kenner said at Wednesday’s Pelicans game when told of the name change.

But then, Wetzel thought about it.

“You know it’s kind of nice that somebody local was able to do it,” he said,

Yes, it was, once you learn the story of how Smoothie King founders Steve and Cindy Kuhnau, also of Kenner, built the enterprise from scratch before selling it Wan Kim, owner of more than 100 franchises in his native South Korea, who then decided to keep the headquarters here instead of moving it to Dallas or Atlanta as he had originally intended.

That’s a good news story worth telling whether Kim had bought the naming rights or not.

Kim, who discovered Smoothie King while attending Boston University, moved his young family here from Korea following the sale, and they’ve become so localized they’re eagerly anticipating their second Mardi Gras and, to, Kim, the seemingly endless array of festivals which follow.

And so what if it’s the Smoothie King Center?

The other potential sponsors were a bank and an energy company. That’s no fun.

The Lakers and Clippers get by in a place known for selling paper clips (Staples Center) and the Trail Blazers recently renamed the Rose Garden “The MODA Center,” which even Portland’s mayor described as a head-scratcher.

The point is, this was a good deal all around.

Tom Benson, whose purchase of the then-Hornets probably kept them here, was given control of the naming rights in the deal instead of the annual state subsidy which angered so many about his former arrangement with the state and the Saints. Now he has something for his investment which doesn’t cost the taxpayers.

Smoothie King, which wants to expand its brand in this country and aboard, gets its name on an NBA facility just in time for the All-Star game which will be seen around the world.

And the New Orleans Arena, excuse me, Smoothie King Center, gets a boost in the Benson/SMG effort to get it out of shadow of its monolithic neighbor.

The arena’s proximity to the Superdome was a money saver. The two share a parking garage, utilize the same air conditioning system and office space.

But that location also prohibited the business development that accompanies most other downtown facilities simply because its environs are blocked off by the Dome and the Ponchatrain Expressway.

By this time next year, the current front entrance, now on David Drive across from the backside of the Superdome, will be shifted toward the side facing the Hyatt with an approach supposed to resemble the much-admired Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

And along with pregame concerts in Champions Square, plans are finally to restore the food and retail availability that existed in the old New Orleans Center, which has remained largely unused since the storm.

There’s also a plan to utilize the arena on Saints game days with a sports bar area that can be used for private pre-game parties or perhaps be open to the public.

Fans already are highly approving of the interior renovations made before this season.

It would be nice to say that the Smoothie King Center will mean more sports in the building, but that’s not happening.

College basketball, either involving local teams (remember that Tulane was a driving force in getting the arena built, only to discover that it wasn’t worth playing there thanks to the program’s decline) or even NCAA Tournament events, minimal interest, minor league hockey can’t pay the rent as neither can the LHSAA to bring the state basketball tournament here, and single items like boxing and tennis which Harrah’s was supposed to sponsor have long been forgotten.

The Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation is bidding on the 2016 Olympic gymnastics trials, but it’s an expensive proposition.

Truth is, the Saints/Pelicans control of the resources of both facilities make even sponsored sports in the arena a financially risky business.

And no matter what you call it, the facility is never going to have the cachet of the Superdome. Most who get around the NBA rate the ambience, both interior and exterior, in the bottom third of the league.

But it’s now got a name of its own, and a local one at that.

And we’ve got committed ownership to keep an NBA team here, even if its record is a disappointment.

Maybe a nice smoothie would give the players a pick-me-up.