WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — When the New Orleans Saints conclude practice Wednesday at the $30 million training center built for them at the luxury Greenbrier Resort, the three fields there are expected to be used by disaster-affected youth football teams whose regular fields were contaminated by flooding of historic proportions.
Beyond that, the future of the athletic facilities Greenbrier owner Jim Justice built in 2014 remains uncertain.
When the Saints depart for Houston on Wednesday night for joint practices with the Texans, an initial three-year agreement for New Orleans to hold the bulk of training camp at the historic mountain retreat in West Virginia will effectively expire.
Justice said he and the Saints have discussed an open-ended extension that would allow either side to end the agreement with a minimum of two years' notice, but there have been no commitments yet.
"It would be an enormous disappointment to me and the people of West Virginia if they don't come back, compounded by this terrible disaster we've had," said Justice, a coal mining magnate who is also running for governor of West Virginia. "It has been a tremendous economic boost for West Virginia and a tremendous morale and spiritual boost for the people — especially now.
"These people don't need another cannon ball right now," Justice added. "But if that's what it is, you deal with it."
The Saints have gone 7-9 following each of their first two training camps at the resort, which was founded as a health spa on the site of natural springs in the midst of a scenic, rugged, densely forested landscape near the West Virginia-Virginia state line.
Many Saints fans now question whether the luxurious surroundings — marked by Classic Revival architecture similar to the White House — have made players "soft." Others simply question why the club can't find a suitable training site much closer than the nearly 900-mile drive from New Orleans. After all, the Saints' lone Super Bowl season followed a training camp held at team headquarters in 2009.
Saints coach Sean Payton got to know Justice's resort while attending the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic (which was canceled by flooding this summer). Payton readily shows his affection for the Greenbrier and dismisses the notion that the posh surroundings are responsible for the Saints' recent struggles. He has said the relative seclusion makes it easier to work without distraction, and that the facilities, sitting at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, provide summer practice conditions considerably less hot and humid than in south Louisiana.
At the same time, it's not clear that the Saints believe that continuing to train at the Greenbrier serves their best interest.
"We'll evaluate that. We do that at the end of each year," Saints executive vice president and general manager Mickey Loomis said shortly after the club arrived in West Virginia this summer. "Ultimately, it comes down to what gives us the best chance to be successful."
What was clear from comments made by Loomis, Payton and several players was that the team's bond with the people of White Sulphur Springs was strengthened by the decision not to move camp from the resort following devastating June floods. The Saints, who a decade ago embraced their role in New Orleans' recovery from Katrina, canceled conditioning tests on their first full day in West Virginia and instead helped fix up a public recreational area that included a playground, tennis and basketball courts, and playing fields.
"Any time you're there to help and really work, it transcends regions and states and there's an element of the human spirit that's consistent," Payton said.
Stephen Gustard, who expects to be displaced from his flooded White Sulphur Springs home for months, called the Saints' effort to rebuild the park "a huge morale booster."
"That's a place where kids can go play and get away from the depressing avenue where everyone's at right now," said Gustard, the chef at a French bistro known for its goat cheese mousse served with figs on crostini in nearby Lewisburg. "It's exciting even just having a professional team that supports our community by coming here."
Last weekend, the Saints invited high school football teams from flood-damaged communities near Charleston, the state capital, to attend practice and meet with players and coaches.
The Greenbrier is rebuilding from damage to its golf courses and other amenities, but the hotel sits above where floodwaters rose, as do the terraced, hillside facilities the Saints use.
If the Saints don't return, Justice said he'll see if other NFL teams are interested. But Justice stressed that his initial hope was that the Saints would make the Greenbrier their "home-away-from-home" for many years. He has tried to make it affordable, charging the club a $150 room rate instead of the usual $400-plus during summer. Justice said his catering staff provides team meals at a discount and sticks to a menu devised by the team's nutritionist.
"I've adopted them," said Justice, whose Greenbrier office is adorned with Saints memorabilia.
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Posted on Wed, August 17, 2016
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer