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Detroit Native Don Barden On a Roll, Owns Four Casinos, But a Casino in his Hometown Not
In the Cards
By Tina Lam, Detroit Free Press
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Feb. 23, 2004 - LAS VEGAS -- Last week was a very good week for Don Barden. The spotlight shone on him on three different stages. 

In Las Vegas, the chairman and CEO of Barden Cos. was treated like a movie star as he hosted concerts, cocktail parties and award ceremonies in a three-day celebration at his casino, the first ever owned by an African American in Las Vegas. 

On Saturday, the TBS cable network broadcast a 2-hour awards ceremony in Atlanta in January honoring a tuxedo-clad Barden and 10 other African Americans with Trumpet awards for their accomplishments in law, politics, entertainment and business. Other honorees included former South African President Nelson Mandela, singer and actress Della Reese, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, musician Isaac Hayes and actress Angela Bassett. 

In Detroit on Wednesday, he won kudos from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the City Council as one of seven living legends in a Black History Month program. 

Barden has been on a roll, gathering plaques and praise across the country. But he still doesn't have the thing he most wanted: a casino in Detroit. 

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer rejected Barden's application for a Detroit casino in 1997. Barden sued, but lost. 

There is also something less tangible that Barden is missing. "He can't get love in his hometown," said Detroit political consultant Adolph Mongo. "There's something about Detroit and its home-grown talent. You can get respect everyplace else, but not here. Barden hasn't truly been appreciated like he should have." 

In his own casino in Las Vegas this weekend, surrounded by invited guests from around the country and celebrities such as Dick Gregory, Hayes, and original Supreme Mary Wilson, Barden looked like a star. 

He walked down a long red carpet laid out on the sidewalk leading into the party he hosted Saturday night for guests to watch the Trumpet awards telecast. The crowd of about 200 sat in black chairs with gold bows. They nibbled grilled asparagus and smoked salmon, cheering wildly when Barden appeared on the TV screens. Elegantly dressed women clamored to have their pictures taken with him. "We're so proud of him," said Ada Harden, an Austin, Texas, radio talk-show host. 

In an interview Friday at the casino, Barden said, "Despite people expressing admiration for me, some resent me, some are jealous of me, some think I have enough and don't want me to go further." 

Barden says he's still angry about being turned down for a casino. "I deserved a fair shot in my hometown. . . . I'm not obsessed with it, but I'm not bashful letting people know that I got screwed and the city got screwed. You've got $400 million in casino profits leaving the city." 

Barden said he had hoped to become the first black billionaire in Michigan, and the Donald Trump of Detroit. He wanted to reinvest casino money in the city, building lofts and housing and other projects, he said. "I always wanted to be the catalyst," he said. His goal: To rebuild the city. 

Now, as the owner of four casinos outside Michigan, people still expect him to bring his money home and reinvest it in Detroit. "It makes me mad. Don't ask me to give my money away here," he said. "Go ask those people who got the casinos." 

Barden, possibly the wealthiest man in Detroit, could live anywhere. But he owns just one home, which is next to the Detroit Golf Club. His company's headquarters is on Madison Street downtown. 

For now, Barden is basking in the limelight elsewhere and pursuing new opportunities wherever he finds them. He's finding plenty. 

Last summer, his picture graced the cover of Black Enterprise magazine, which named his firm 2003 Company of the Year. Barden Cos.' $347 million in revenue in 2002 made it the sixth-largest black-owned business in the country, several notches ahead of Oprah Winfrey's television and publishing empire. Harpo Inc. was ranked No. 9, with sales of $314.5 million. 

Barden owns four casinos: the Majestic Star riverboat in Gary, Ind., and three Fitzgeralds casinos he bought out of bankruptcy at the end of 2001. Those casinos are in downtown Las Vegas, Tunica, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo. 

He spent part of last week on the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean considering whether to open one of the two casino hotels allowed there at the invitation of a top official. 

He has offered Trump $235 million for Trump's riverboat casino in Gary, Ind., next to Barden's Majestic Star casino. Trump wants $250 million. "I think we'll reach a deal later this year," Barden said. 

He is one of several bidders for the bankrupt Mountain High casino in Black Hawk, Colo., where he already owns a casino. 

He has helped lobby for slot machines at horse tracks in Maryland and Pennsylvania. If those states approve slots, he will apply for licenses, either alone or with other investors, he said. 

Subsidiary Barden Technologies is developing a new generation of voting machines that would allow voters to touch a picture on a computer screen. Barden expects the machines to be certified for use in 2006. Barden Entertainment in Romulus is working on assembling and programming digital video jukeboxes, which play music videos. 

Barden is a franchisee of Northpoint Technology, a U.S. company that is trying to get Federal Communications Commission approval for wireless Internet and cable TV service on satellite frequencies. If approved, Barden has the franchise for Chicago and Detroit. 

Barden first won national attention for building a cable business in metro Detroit that became one of the biggest black-owned businesses in the country. He sold Barden Cablevision, formed in 1979, in 1994 for $300 million, making about $110 million. That's also when he ran afoul of some Detroiters. After saying black ownership of the new cable industry was important, it still rankles some that he then sold his company to Comcast Corp. 

His firm may tackle everything from developing and distributing cars in Namibia to real estate development, but Barden's empire is really about casinos, where 90 percent of Barden Cos.' revenues come from. 

Barden opened the Majestic Star riverboat casino in 1996. He bought the three Fitzgeralds casinos out of bankruptcy for $149 million on Dec. 7, 2001, more than doubling the revenues of his casino firm, Majestic Star Casino LLC. Revenue from all four casinos jumped to $336 million in 2002, up from $138 million the previous year, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Figures for all of 2003 aren't yet available, but revenues for the first nine months were down about a half-percent compared with the same period in 2002. The Fitzgeralds properties' revenue dropped 4.5 percent during the 9-month period compared with the same period in 2002, while the Gary riverboat revenues rose 5 percent. "We didn't do badly, given the economic situation," Barden said. 

Gary brings in the most revenue, followed by Tunica, Las Vegas and Black Hawk. The Las Vegas casino is the least profitable. 

Despite the accolades as the only black casino owner, he hasn't taken the casino industry -- noted for flamboyant and visible owners like Trump and Steve Wynn -- by storm. 

"He doesn't register here on the scene at all," said Ray Poirer, editor of Gaming Today, a weekly Las Vegas gambling newspaper. 

Barden's Nevada casino is in old downtown Las Vegas, where the neon signs are faded and cheap buffets are still the norm. It's miles from the glamorous gambling palaces on the Strip, such as the Venetian and Bellagio.

He's a small fish in a big pond in Vegas, but he's plotting a bigger presence. Barden spun the Vegas casino off from the others in December, making it debt-free. "I can expand or sell it and build another casino on the Strip if I want," he said. He is in talks to build a condo time-share project in Las Vegas. He gave out his own achievement awards in Las Vegas on Saturday. 

The Tunica casino is the most profitable of the Fitzgeralds properties. It's a premier property and the only casino overlooking the Mississippi River, said Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Visitors & Convention Bureau. It's next to a river park Barden donated land for. Barden is more visible in Tunica. His casino housed Mike Tyson's camp in preparation for his heavyweight fight against Lennox Lewis in 2002, which generated big publicity for the city, Franklin said. 

In Gary, Barden and neighbor Trump are not big draws compared with the rest of the Chicago-area casinos. But in the last 18 months, Barden's Majestic Star has slightly outdrawn Trump's casino, said Edward Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Gaming Insight newsletter. Barden's boat has been fined by the gaming board for various violations since it opened, but Feigenbaum said the violations were minor compared to those of some other casinos. "He's met every promise he made," Feigenbaum said. 

Barden still wants one of the three Detroit casino licenses, each of which brings in more than his four combined. He floated a plan earlier this month to buy Greektown Casino from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which owns more than 90 percent of Greektown Casino so it can focus on a proposed casino in Romulus. 

But the tribe said it wasn't interested. Barden's supporters plan a referendum for November that would require at least one casino license to be rebid. 

Short of a miracle, it doesn't appear a casino in his hometown is in the cards for Barden. But some observers say it's not wise to count him out. 

"Some day, if you look in the dictionary under persistence and dogged pursuit, you'll see a picture of Don Barden," said political consultant and former mayoral spokesman Greg Bowens. "He'll be smiling beside a casino somewhere in the Detroit skyline." 


Age: 51 

Title: Chairman and president of Livonia-based staffing firm Bartech Group Inc. 

Education: Bachelor's from Princeton University, law degree from Harvard. 

2003 sales-revenue: Revenue was $190 million. It posted revenue of $140 million in 2002 and $105 million in 2001, the Crain's Detroit Business Book of Lists reports. 

Employees: 3,500 

Business model: Provides staffing for professional and clerical business openings and information technology sector. 

Long-term goal: "We are in a rapidly consolidating industry. Once there were thousands of staffing agencies. We feel it will whittle down to a few major suppliers. We want to be one of the more significant staffing suppliers in the country." 

Advice for minority entrepreneurs: "First is to pursue high-growth areas and get as much advice from key customers as they will give you. Second, surround yourself with professional management and seasoned executives, especially in the financial area. Third, be ambitious and don't feel you shouldn't be ambitious." 

-----To see more of the Detroit Free Press, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2004, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. DJT, CMCSK, 


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