CHARLESTON - While a trumpeter blared, "When the Saints Go Marching In," New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton paraded into the governor's parlor Thursday and touted The Greenbrier resort as the NFL team's new training camp home.
Sporting a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring, Payton praised the move that will keep the Saints training at The Greenbrier at least through 2016. Payton said West Virginia offers a cooler climate, as the team splits training camp with humid summertime Metairie, La.
Payton appeared after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a tourism bill with tax breaks for The Greenbrier's training camp, its new medical facility and other statewide projects. Jim Justice, The Greenbrier's billionaire owner, is pouring $20 million to $25 million into new training grounds that he expects to be ready for Saints camp in July.
"I think, more than anything else, it's a chance for us to go outside just of our region and make an impression on a state like West Virginia, especially a state that doesn't have an NFL team," Payton told reporters Thursday.
Though widely separated on a map, the Saints have looked at The Greenbrier for years. They also had ventured out of Louisiana for camp, having trained in locations from Vero Beach, Fla., to southern California.
Payton said the team's executive vice-president/general manager, Mickey Loomis, first looked at The Greenbrier about three years ago. Talks with owner Jim Justice stirred up again about six months ago, and Payton said he started talking with Justice every other day.
Payton also caddied for pro golfer Ryan Palmer at the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic at the resort last July.
"I don't know. I bit off more than I can chew," Payton said. "That was hard work."
Justice said two natural grass practice fields and one synthetic field are being built at the resort, in addition to a 55,000-square-foot building with kitchen and dining facilities, meeting rooms, weight and locker rooms, training and physical therapy accommodations.
The tourism bill would offer a break on some new sales tax from Saints camp.
"This investment tax credit was surely entered into my decision making as to whether to have them come or not," Justice said.
Justice has estimated the Saints would train at the resort from July 18 to Aug. 16. Admission will be free.
The tourism bill Tomblin signed Thursday provides a separate carve-out for The Greenbrier's proposed medical institute. The medical center breaks on corporate income tax could total up to $25 million over 10 years. The $86 million facility will likely open next year, and Justice expects to draw top doctors for professional athletes.
One of the physicians, Birmingham, Ala.-based Dr. James Andrews, worked on Payton after a knee injury.
"He's second-to-none when it comes to those type of procedures," Payton said. "Hopefully, none of us have to visit."
Justice said he has more projects in the works. Including training camp and the medical center, he plans to spend $400 million on tourism projects he expects to create more than 1,000 jobs.
Justice, who ranks 362nd on Forbes magazine's list of the country's wealthiest people, bought the Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $20.1 million. The resort in White Sulphur Springs dates to 1778 and has hosted presidents and royalty.
It features a hotel, casino, spa, dozens of amenities and a once-secret underground bunker built for Congress in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.