by Tribune StaffRecently formed, the St. Augustine High School Foundation announced in mid-June that it purchased the property at 2525 St. Bernard Ave., for a multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art practice facility for the school’s football team and other school groups.
The purchase of the property, expanding St. Augustine’s footprint in the 7th Ward neighborhood and positively impacting the surrounding community, has been a long-time dream of St. Augustine alumnus, physician and New Orleans Tribune executive publisher, Dr. Dwight McKenna.
“For many years, the property sat there,” Dr. McKenna said recently while on WBOK 1230 AM’s morning show with host Oliver Thomas. “I realized that if St. Aug was going to grow, if it was going to be here many more years after me, then we needed that property. But we could never get the money together.
That all changed when a local businessman joined the Foundation’s board.
“John stepped in, got on the board and became interested in the project.”
Dr. McKenna was referring to local business leader, philanthropist and publisher of The New Orleans Advocate, John Georges, who was already a member of the St. Augustine High School Board of Directors. After joining the Foundation’s Board, Georges took the lead in the donor effort to raise the funds to acquire the property.
Foundation Board chairman Justin Augustine also acknowledged Georges’ efforts in a printed statement. But the businessman is slow to take to credit.“We did this together,” Georges said on WBOK. “Dr. McKenna didn’t give up. I joined in on something that was already going on, and if you read the press release, you saw the names of the people that stepped up.”
Joining the St. Augustine High School Board and pushing to bring this major acquisition to fruition were easy decisions, says Georges, whose business enterprises are vast and varied. As a community leader and businessman, he appreciates the role the school has played in producing some of the city and nation’s best and brightest Black men.
“I benefit from St. Augustine,” he said. “Senior management at our main company. . . Imperial Trading—it’s managed by St. Aug graduates.”
Georges, who joined Dr. McKenna on WBOK last month to talk about the purchase and what it means for the school, its students, and community, said since becoming a part of the St. Augustine team, he realizes that the renowned school dedicated to educating African-American males, has a strong network of alumni who continually support the school’s mission.
“I know a lot of private schools, and I don’t know any other where the alumni have supported—pound for pound—more than St. Aug,” Georges said.
In fact, prior to the formation of the Foundation, St. Augustine High School received a $1 million gift from alumnus Arnold Donald, chief executive officer of Carnival Cruise Lines. And Dr. McKenna added that while several alumni were already on deck to support the project financially, other well-funded buyers eyeing the property, a more expedient approach to acquiring the land was needed.
That is where a bridge loan from the Galatoire Foundation came into play. The Galatoire Foundation loaned the St. Augustine Foundation more than $2 million to purchase the property and develop the practice field until it could raise the money.
And instead of relying on alumni who already make significant donations to the high school to support scholarships, as well as the school’s annual and capital funds, Georges felt the best way to meet the challenge of raising the money needed to buy the property and create the practice facility, was to not detract from the ongoing support alumni were already providing to school.
“So, we went after people with no direct connection to the school,” he said. “And nobody turned us down. We’re talking about a couple of million dollars of philanthropy.”
Ultimately, the St. Augustine High School Foundation purchased the property through donations from the local business community, including lead gifts from Frank and Paulette Stewart and an anonymous foundation. Other major donors also include Raising Cane’s owner and founder Todd Graves; New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owners Tom and Gayle Benson; Georges and his wife Dathel Georges; Boysie Bollinger; Joseph Canizaro; Tommy Coleman; Harvey Gulf International Marine; and Jeff Doussan.
“We pursued this blighted property with a vision for a developed green space for students. We knew we could – in time – rally the business and civic community to enhance their support of St. Augustine High School,” Georges said in a printed statement. “Donors from every corner of New Orleans responded incredibly. The young men of St. Augustine are the future leaders of our city. This property and the facilities will be second to none in New Orleans and become an essential part of what it means to be a part of St. Augustine High School.”The property comprises an entire city block and is located at the former site of the Doussan Company (old Haspels building) at Broad St. and St. Bernard Ave. And the redevelopment of the once blighted site now serves as a beacon for the surrounding neighborhood.
Adjacent to St. Augustine High School, the site features several sports and training amenities, including an NFL-quality playing and training surface, which was installed in 2016. It will continue to be used by athletic teams at St. Augustine High School. St. Augustine’s famous Marching 100 Band will also utilize this rejuvenated property, as they prepare for performances throughout the year.
Work on the site began in 2015. Abandoned warehouses were removed and a state-of-the-art grass turf field, fencing, sprinklers, and lighting have been installed.
With the purchase of the property and development of the practice facility, members of the school’s football team and St. Augustine students taking part in extracurricular sports and activities no longer need to travel away from the school to practice, which not only shortened the time spent practicing but cut into other obligations students may have.
The time spent traveling, roughly an hour daily, can now be used in better ways, Georges said in the WBOK interview. “That hour a day is better spent studying or at home with family,” he said.
The St. Augustine High School Foundation was established by the V. Rev. Michael Thompson, SSJ Superior General, and a group of alumni, which in addition to Dr. McKenna and Donald, included Justin Augustine, Sherman Copelin, Dean Baquet; Danny Bakewell, owner of The Los Angeles Sentinel and WBOK 1230-AM.
These men, leaders in their various industries, are just a few examples of the impact St. Augustine graduates have across the city, state and world, including a former mayor, numerous judges and big names in corporate America.
Meanwhile, St. Augustine High School has produced more than 40 NFL-bound athletes, including 2015 NFL All-Pros and former LSU players Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals and Trai Turner of the Carolina Panthers, as well as Alfred Jenkins, a member of the legendary 1974 undefeated Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins. Star running back and St. Augustine alumnus Leonard Fournette was drafted earlier this year by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, following a record-setting career at LSU, according to a press release.
The school and Foundation’s leaders are hopeful that the new facility and subsequent efforts of the Foundation will help the school recruit and retain top students.
The purchase provides St. Augustine with opportunities to expand its academic campus as well.
“The acquisition of this property is a game changer for this great institution,” said Foundation Board chairman Justin Augustine in a printed statement. “We are so excited for the financial support from the business community, in addition to the resources provided by St. Augustine alumni, all of whom appreciate the contribution that St. Augustine makes to this community. “
With the success of this endeavor still fresh, Dr. McKenna said St. Aug still has some challenges, citing “lingering problems” with the school’s Legacy building damaged heavily by Hurricane Katrina.
But the new Foundation is up to challenge.
“The St. Augustine Foundation is not stopping here, and I want everybody to know that,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think that we’ve stopped because we built this beautiful facility. We still have some of the issues. And St. Augustine to me is a lifelong pursuit of excellence.