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Casino, cable entrepreneur Don Barden dies

Detroit businessman Don Barden, one of Detroit’s business elite who was the first African American to own a Las Vegas casino and the first to own a major cable TV franchise, has died.

Barden had been fighting lung cancer and died early this morning at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. He was 67.

“He was a great guy,” his lawyer, Henry Baskin, said today, adding that Barden was a Detroit icon.

Said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing in a statement: "Don was a stalwart leader and businessman in this community, as well as a friend. We were aware of his longtime illness, and dreaded this day. We send our condolences to his family."

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano recalled Barden as a successful businessman who maintained a concern for the welfare of Detroit.

“He stood as a role model and mentor for those who wanted to be successful in business through hard work and perseverance,” Ficano said. “He has made countless contributions to the quality of life in this area and will be remembered for his generosity.”

In his storied career, Barden partnered with the rich and famous, including a failed bid in the late 1990s to open a $1 billion theme park resort in Detroit with megastar Michael Jackson in exchange for a city casino license.

Barden built homes in Detroit and a business in Namibia and had been named by Ebony magazine, the TBS cable network, Black Entertainment Television and Black Enterprise magazine as a top national business leader. Barden’s been showered with awards, most recently a lifetime achievement award from the Michigan Chronicle newspaper and an Award of Excellence from the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund in 2006.

Barden was known for throwing lavish parties, many at Detroit’s Roostertail club. During the Super Bowl in 2006 in Detroit, he hosted a three-day party that included singers Smokey Robinson, Little Richard and Chaka Khan.

He started Barden Cablevision and 1979 and built it into one of the nation’s biggest black-owned businesses, selling it in 1994 to Comcast. In 2001 he became the first black person to own a Las Vegas Casino.

“Don Barden was a pioneer of his time, and an inspiration to not only the local business community, but to everyone he touched throughout his business ventures,” Detroit Regional Chamber president and CEO Sandy Baruah said in a statement.


“As a board member in the 1990s, Mr. Barden brought his knowledge, talents and competitive drive to the Detroit Regional Chamber.”


Barden's casino empire included the Majestic Star company, operator of two casino boats in Gary, Ind., and Fitzgerald casinos in Las Vegas, Tunica, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo, but last year the company filed for bankruptcy that apparently has yet to be resolved.

He wanted to own a casino in Detroit, but then-Mayor Dennis Archer rejected Barden’s attempt to get one of the city’s three casino licenses in 1996. Two years later Barden teamed up with Jackson in a second, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get a casino license. In return, they pledged to build a $1 billion theme park and resort near the Ambassador Bridge.

Barden said in 2004 that he harbored anger over the denial of a casino license.

“I got screwed and the city got screwed,” he told the Free Press at the time, saying the owners of the casinos at the time were taking profits out of the city when he would have reinvested profits into Detroit.

The bitterness underscored a fierce, competitive will that Barden inherited from his father, Milton. “All my father did was work and go to church,” Barden, born in Inkster in 1943 as the ninth of 13 children, recalled decades later. Milton Barden worked for Chrysler, sold scrap at a Detroit junkyard, fixed cars, and did other odds and ends.

The entrepreneurial spark burned early. At about age 9, Donnie, as he was named at birth, built a vegetable stand out of wood and sold family-raised veggies to passing motorists. In his late teens, he got a job at a shipbuilding company in Ohio and rose from the mailroom to the CEO’s assistant in two years.

He was going in many directions at once. Still in Ohio, Barden started a record store, launched a weekly newspaper, got elected to the Lorain, Ohio city council, and started developing real estate.

Deals kept coming. In 1980, then in his 30s, he bought interests in two Ohio cable television franchises for $2,000 each, and sold his stake two years later for $200,000.

Then he learned that his native Inkster was going to be wired for cable TV. Barden won the contract, wiring first Inkster for cable TV, and later Van Buren Township, Romulus, and finally Detroit itself.

It was a brutally competitive field, and Barden’s small cable company was no match for the giant players growing nationwide. He sold his company to Comcast in 1994 for a reported $105 million, and parlayed that fortune into casino gaming.

His life plan was expansive. "I want to build a company like Sloan did with General Motors, like Bill Gates has done with Microsoft,” he told a Free Press interviewer in 1999. “Very big and very profitable and contributing things back -- to the community, to employees, to family, friends, to heirs.

“I want to leave a legacy,” he continued. “I want to have a company that will go on for many years after I’m gone, which has not often been the case among most African-American businesses."

He almost made that vision come true. But overexpansion in casino gaming at a time when many other companies were doing the same put his gaming palaces under financial stress. In recent years, his firm defaulted on casino bond payments and sought bankruptcy protection for most of his casinos. His Namibian auto ventured dried up. The recession pummeled his interests.

In perhaps an even crueler twist, his personal life was skidding at the same time. Already twice divorced, Barden married Bella Marshall, Detroit’s former city finance director, in 1988, and the couple enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, with a 10,000-square-foot home along the Detroit Golf Club and brilliant parties, at one of which, for their tenth anniversary, Barden presented his wife with a 10-carat diamond ring.

But the marriage appeared to be unraveling in recent months. As Barden’s health worsened due to cancer, Marshall filed legal papers seeking to have him declared incompetent to manage his affairs. Barden moved out of the house and took a room in a downtown hotel.

Despite all his recent troubles, and his bitterness over not getting a Detroit casino, many Detroiters today may echo what then-City Council President Maryann Mahaffey said in 1994, when Barden was selling his local cable franchise to Comcast: “He’s been in my estimation an honorable man and an honest guy, and I’m just sorry that we’ll lose him."

Source: Detroit Free Press 

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