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“He parlayed a sure bet into a mega casino business”
Don Barden does not go to Las Vegas to roll the dice or play the slots; he goes there to ante up millions to buy the casino and invest in the casino business. His bet is a sure thing and he always win. In 2003, Black Enterprise Magazine rated Barden No. 6 in its annual report of the top 100 Black businesses nationwide, showing that his holdings include casino gambling, real estate development and international trade. And B.E. further stated that despite a soft business climate, Barden’s company continued to grow because he capitalized on the recession-resistant gaming industry.
In the years that followed, Barden Companies Inc., considered one of the top Black businesses in the nation, have increased their revenues from $347 million in 2003 to more than $519 million in 2006. In addition, Barden is one of the top employment leaders of Black owned businesses with a listing of over 4,050 employees. Barden started his business empire in Lorain, Ohio when he founded a real estate development company. Referring to the banker in Lorain who gave him his start, he said, “There were people who gave me an opportunity,” and he has never “strayed” far from his roots. Though he has casinos in Las Vegas, Colorado and Mississippi – which puts him in three of the top five markets in the U. S. – his business headquarters are still located in Detroit, Michigan.
He was the first Black city councilman in Lorain, serving two terms before venturing out as a trailblazer for Black businesses. While building his business empire, Barden pursued other endeavors on his way up the ladder. He went into the media by publishing a newspaper for five years, working briefly as a television anchor in Lorain, and hosting a weekly talk show on television in Cleveland.
Barden, the casino mogul grew up poor in rural Detroit, where he reportedly had to share a bed with his brother, while the family eked out a living of their own home grown vegetables, and the chickens and hogs that they raised. His mother and father were factory workers who supplemented their meager incomes doing odd-jobs as they struggled to raise 13 children in their small farm house.
After experiencing stints in hometown politics, via the local city council; in real estate, via his real estate investment and development company; and in media via newspapers, radio stations, television and cable systems, Barden became one of the nation’s largest cable systems owners. He capitalized on the expansion of the cable industry in the eighties by focusing on the predominantly African American market, securing wiring rights and forming a partnership with one of Canada’s largest cable companies.
Barden then sold his cable television holdings for over $100 million and went on to pursue opportunities in casino/gaming industry. He maintained his interests in real estate with Waycor Development and went international with his African-based Barden International Inc. in Namibia, a firm engaged in automotive processing and distribution, one of the largest private investment companies in Southern Africa.
As the owner of four casinos, Barden became the first African American to wholly own a national gaming company – and not just any casino, but one located in the gaming capital of America: Las Vegas. He has worked tirelessly to bring diversity to the industry saying, “A lot of people don’t know my casinos are African American owned.” And with that spirit, Barden spares no effort, offers no apologies and accepts no excuses when he seeks out the best in African Americans, minorities and women – from his public relations that do his media business to the janitorial companies that maintain his buildings. Barden wants people to know that his casinos are African American owned, and he has spent millions informing the public, and by “putting his money where his mouth is.” Further he has worked tirelessly to change that misconception and has said, “The plan is to initiate an advertising campaign in local and national Black publications and to market to African American organizations and professional groups.”
On a visit to the office of the Los Angeles Sentinel, Barden introduced the supplier of the uniforms that he uses in his casinos: Earl Bryant, a Black business-owner, designer and maker of commercial and industrial uniforms. Barden hired Bryant to supply all his casinos and he had these words about the uniform maker, “We know that Earl can supply us with quality and we want to give him our business rather than someone else.”
Barden upped his business profile when he opened the Majestic Star cruise ship in Gary, Indiana, back in the late nineties. The casino was housed on a 40,000 square foot yacht and was one of the largest riverboat casinos in the country. Also, at that time he was one of the only two Blacks who had majority ownership of a casino operation. His emphasis, in all of his business endeavors, is on growth. After 9/11, the gaming markets experienced an upward trend in local areas because of the public’s apprehension about flying so soon after that national tragedy. Barden’s next move was tantamount to “taking a lemon and making lemonade.” Since the gaming industry is virtually recession proof – people always want to enjoy life and have fun – the 9/11 tragedy pressured many states to consider legalizing gambling casinos so that their residents will only have to travel intrastate to gamble. So by expanding his gaming portfolio, Barden was able to benefit from those states’ largesse and positioned himself to cash in on that growth potential.
In furtherance of the expansion and diversification of his empire, Barden sought partnerships with what he called “some bright guys” who brought him into different forms of jukebox technology with the potential to store up to 3,000 digital-quality music videos on a computer hard drive and operate through a touch-screen monitor. He formed Barden Entertainment and Technologies divisions to market the products and by the end of the first year, his outlay had produced several hundred jukeboxes and the expectation several thousand in the future. The jukeboxes were to be placed in all of Barden Companies Inc. properties, in addition to bar and restaurants on a revenue-sharing basis.
He has also had his share of setbacks. Surprisingly, he suffered multiple rejections from his hometown of Detroit when on two occasions his proposal for large-scale developments there were turned down. The first was to build a casino and the second was for a billion-dollar theme park. Even with the addition of superstar Michael Jackson as a partner, the voters in Detroit rejected Barden’s proposal for a theme park.
However, Barden’s forward entrepreneurial thrust clearly illustrated the adages, “with risk comes reward,” and “the greater the risk, the higher the reward.” For it appeared that in order to assist the nation, post 9/11 and lessen the national trauma, Barden gave the public a way to move ahead, have fun, and not drown in sorrow and fear. He provided entertainment, fun and casino activities to sooth people in their great time of need, and Barden Companies Inc. continues to provide people with fun, entertainment and amusement up to the present.
As his empire grew, Barden became a part of an elite group of businessmen and they attracted other successful entrepreneurs, including prominent businessman Robert L. Johnson (co-founder of BET and more recently, the co-owner of the N.C. Bobcats) whose RLJ Development is listed on B.E. 100s with annual sales exceeding $50 million.
At this point in his career, Barden expressed total satisfaction with the goals he has accomplished and the only new horizons that he appears to be looking ahead to is being more active politically – not particularly as a candidate for office but more so as a political advisor, or maybe an ambassador.
When the NAACP honored Barden with the Annual Roy Wilkins President’s Trailblazer Award, it quoted the venerable Wilkins stating, “The talk of wining our share is not easy one of disengagement and fight, but the hard one of work, of short as well as long jumps, of disappointments and of sweet success.” These words seem to aptly describe the life, journey and legacy of Don H. Barden. With the Majestic Star Casino Gary, Indiana; Fitzgeralds Casino and Hotel Tunica, Mississippi; Fitzgeralds Casino Blackhawk, Colorado; and Fitzgerald Casino Las Vegas, Nevada; Barden has made lasting footprints in the gaming/casino industry, and the first Black man to do so.