NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Tens of thousands of dollars are still owed to several companies who did work in the planning stages of the 9th Ward Field of Dreams, a football stadium proposed for the 9th Ward of New Orleans. To date, little to no visible work has been done on the stadium’s proposed site.
The past due bills are the latest discovery in the Empty Field of Dreams joint investigation by WVUE-TV FOX 8 News and The Athletic New Orleans. Our initial investigation found that just $900 remains in the bank for the project that was supposed to be a symbol of hope for the Carver community after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the campus in 2005.
Most of the bills were through the project’s contractor, SEOLA Enterprises, owned by Rodney Whitney Sr. SEOLA was paid more than $600,000 for work on the 9th Ward Field of Dreams project.
Baton Rouge-based GEO Surfaces was hired to supply the turf and lighting for the field. SEOLA invoiced the 9th Ward Field of Dreams $327,000 for a deposit on turf and lighting but only paid GEO Surfaces $282,000. GEO Surfaces delivered the lights to the project site. The poles for the stadium lights remain at the location to this day.
“[Everything else] at one point is in a container,” Charles Dawson, GEO Surfaces Chief Operating Officer, said.
Our team visited the site and did not see a container. Even though records show SEOLA Enterprises received money to pay GEO Surfaces for the lights, GEO Surfaces never received the payment.
“I think the dream got out of hand,” Dawson said. “I think it turned into a project that was not feasible financially.”
Dawson said his company still has the turf for the field project – specifically the end zone panels – in Carver orange.
“I’d love to see it happen,” Dawson said. “We’ve got a lot invested in this project emotionally, financially and time-wise.”
SEOLA used several subcontractors during its nearly two years on the job.
Eustis Engineering produced a soil report for nearly $12,000. Records show SEOLA sent an invoice to the 9th Ward Field of Dreams for that report and records show SEOLA received that money. But Eustis Engineering said via email, “We were not paid.”
“They [SEOLA] wanted to pay us in $500 increments. We got the first $500 and then it stopped. Had to write the rest off as a loss.”
The 9th Ward Field of Dreams paid SEOLA $1,100 for work done by Blair Plumbing, but that company told us they gave an estimate but never did the job.
M-K Engineering in Metairie provided electrical, plumbing and fire system engineering services to the project. The company provided SEOLA with all the paperwork they needed to get a city permit but were not completely paid for that work.
Documents from M-K Engineering showed they were still owed $7,200 for work they did on the project.
“We sent several times the invoice – keep sending every two to three months to Rodney [Whitney] and they said they’ll submit it to the school board and get paid,” Magan Kansagra said. “[But we were] never paid, ya know.”
Another engineering firm, Great South Engineering in New Orleans, performed work for the project. The owner, Glenn Snyder said he was not paid for the bare minimum that he charged the project.
“I just billed them for basic raw costs of work on the project,” Snyder said. “They never responded and the fellas I dealt with, they just disappeared.”
All of SEOLA’s Invoices indicate the nonprofit’s then-Executive Director Betty Washington ordered the work. SEOLA referred to her as the project manager, but we could find no experience Washington had in project management.
Washington is a former attorney. She gave up her law license in 2004 after being convicted on felony federal fraud charges. She served two years, four months and twenty days in federal prison for tax fraud, bankruptcy fraud and defrauding a federally insured financial institution.
According to court records from the case, prosecutors said Washington “often used false social security numbers in her financial dealings.”
During her time at the 9th Ward Field of Dreams, Washington earned $200,000, or $5,000 a month. Records show that means she earned more than Carver’s current football coach, who works full-time at the school. He makes $55,000.
Records show SEOLA Enterprises halted construction around March 2016. But even with no work being done, Washington continues to receive her $5,000 monthly payment for nearly another year. Her last payment came in February 2017, around the time the organization’s bank account was almost empty. Several months later, she stepped down as executive director.
Even though SEOLA never built a stadium, Washington is still listed as one of the references on the company’s website.
Walking in the door to Yolanda White’s New Orleans home, you can quickly tell she is proud of her history. Her house has a room dedicated to black history and throughout her house, she has icons remembering her beloved alma mater – George Washington Carver High School.
White is a 1980 graduate of Carver High School and gave money to the 9th Ward Field of Dreams project. She said the findings of the Empty Field of Dreams investigation have her stunned.
“It was like someone punched me in the gut,” she said. “I was under the impression the field was being worked on.”
Instead, any semblance of construction stopped three years ago.
“It’s so frustrating and hurts to my heart this happens to my school. My community.” White said. “You don’t give a company that amount of money and nothing done.”
White said she and the rest of the Carver alumni deserve an explanation.
“There’s nothing no one can tell me or show me right now – unless they are going to come put that stadium together,” White said. “You got weeds and lights laying on the ground – that’s it. For a million dollars? Really?”
She said the field would have been historic for the school and the community.
“Here we had an opportunity to give these kids something no class in Carver has ever had – our own stadium,” she said.