Darren A. Nichols / / The Detroit News
Detroit— Don Barden, who is regarded as one of the foremost African-American entrepreneurs in the country, has died.
Barden, 67, died today after his battle with lung cancer. Barden died at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, where he had been getting treatment, his attorney, Henry Baskin, told The Detroit News this morning.
With a career spanning more than 40 years in casinos, real estate development and the entertainment industry, Barden was regarded as one of the top African-American entrepreneurs in the nation.
“Don Barden served history well as a humanitarian, employer and trainer of people,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a released statement. “He set the pace for entrepreneurship as a television cable operator and the first African-American casino owner.“He left us more than he took. Don was the creditor and we are the debtors of his success. In his last days, we prayed together, and he transcended at peace knowing that he had served well.”
Barden was the owner, chairman and chief executive officer of Barden Companies Inc., the Majestic Star and Fitzgerald’s casinos and hotels, and Waycor Development Co. He led the companies from earnings of $600,000 to annual revenue of more than $519 million, making it one of the largest African-American-owned conglomerates in the country.
In entertainment, Barden was powerful enough to travel with Michael Jackson and have the mega superstar lobby for his Detroit casino proposal, Smokey Robinson perform at a Las Vegas gaming hall opening and count Aretha Franklin as a confidant.
“Don Barden was a great man and an inspiration to many,” said L. Londell McMillan, an attorney, whose client list includes Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder. He’s also the executive publisher of New York-based Source Magazine.
“His personal and business accomplishments have paved the way for generations to follow. As a media owner, I am especially touched and impressed by his legacy. I extend my prayers and condolences to his family and close ones.”
Mayor Dave Bing, an NBA Hall of Famer, today called Barden a friend and was saddened to hear about his passing.
“Don was a stalwartleader and businessman in this community, as well as a friend,” Bing said in a released statement. “We were aware of his longtime illness, and dreaded this day. We send our condolences to his family.”
Even in success, Barden always reminded the world he was from Inkster, Mayor Hilliard Hampton said. By supporting Khamalaw H. White Foundation or simply by acknowledging Hampton’s mother was instrumental in getting his first cable contract, he was proud of his roots, Hampton said.
“He’s one of our crown jewels,” said Hampton, who noted Barden’s leadership qualities started when he was a high school quarterback.
“We always look at him as a role model and a best practice of those who can rise above the humble beginnings to greatness. Everyone speaks of Don Barden when you speak of Inkster. Clearly, he’s at the top of the list for his achievements.”
Raised in Inkster, Barden was the ninth of 13 children. When he left to attend Central State University in Ohio, Barden set out to be a lawyer. He was driven by not wanting to be like many who worked on a Ford assembly line.
“Somehow I didn’t have gasoline in my veins and wanted more out of life than a steady assembly-line job,” Barden said in the editorial.
Instead, he started business ventures in Lorain, Ohio, owning a record store, nightclub, a weekly newspaper and real estate development. He also was the first elected black city council member in Lorain.
In Lorain, he also bought an interest in a cable television station and formed Barden Communications in 1981. He built the cable system in Inkster, Romulus, Van Buren Township and Detroit into a venture he sold to Comcast Cable in 1994 for more than $100 million.
Two years later, in 1996, he began operating a riverboat casino in Gary, Ind., the Majestic Star Casino, which at the time was the only African-American-owned casino. A year later, he launched a $50 million gambling vessel to replace it.
Despite breaking ground in the industry, he was unable to own a casino in Detroit. He was unsuccessful in his bid to buy Greektown Casino, where he and Archer embattled in a bitter fight over his snub. He filed a federal lawsuit over the casino process and backed a recall effort against Archer.
“Dennis Archer gave him a raw deal when they didn’t give him a casino,” political consultant Adolph Mongo said. “He was the only person beside the big casino operators that knew how to operate a casino. You don’t get any love in you’re hometown until it’s too late. He was a good guy, who worked hard and paid a lot of taxes and lived in the city. You’ve got to like people like that.”
In December 2001, he acquired three Fitzgerald’s casinos in Colorado, Mississippi and Las Vegas. Four years later, he acquired Majestic Star II in Indiana.
Projects of his real estate development unit, Waycor, include a $61.5 million detention facility in Hamtramck; Chene Park Commons, a residential development in Detroit; and Victoria Woods, a subdivision in Detroit.
Longtime friend Freman Hendrix called Barden “a helluva man” who is emulated by many new entrepreneurs. Hendrix also pointed to his smooth and collected nature that served him well as a black businessman.
“Don had enterprises around the country and throughout Africa,” said Hendrix, an Inkster native and former deputy mayor under Archer.
“He stood alone in his style and success. and he’s an example of something the younger generation can look to try to emulate. He was the epitome of black entrepreneurs in Detroit. He was ahead of the curve and a groundbreaking kind of guy.”
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Damon Keith recalls attending Barden’s wedding and attending the annual Christmas party he held each year. Keith called him a role model for African-American youths and showed they can succeed in business and not just sports and entertainment.
“He reached the heights that years ago were unthinkable to think blacks could own casinos and things of that sort,” Keith said. “He went beyond his reach in saying what he could do.
“For young children, it goes to show you with hard work, intelligence and a little luck, you can go all the way to the top. We don’t have many in terms of entrepreneurial skills like Don Barden.”
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who employed Barden’s estranged wife Bella Marshall as the county’s chief operating officer, said he leaned on Barden for advice.
“Don Barden was not only a very successful businessman and entrepreneur, but a person concerned about Detroit,” Ficano said. “He stood as a role model and mentor for those who wanted to be successful in business through hard work and perseverance. He has made countless contributions to the quality of life in this area and will be remembered for his generosity.”
In November, the Michigan Chronicle gave Barden the lifetime achievement award at its 75th anniversary gala for his ability to reinvent himself. Barden was the recipient of countless awards and was named by Black Enterprise and Ebony magazines as one of the nation’s top business leaders.
“He’s an icon,” said Sam Logan, publisher of the Michigan Chronicle, a weekly publication that is the state’s oldest African-American newspaper.
Barden had been battling cancer for months, but would only publicly say he was battling health problems. He battled his illness with the same tenacity as his business ventures, family members and others said.
“I am fighting the good fight,” Barden said at the time.
Dr. Gerold Bepler, president and CEO of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, added today that “Mr. Barden’s strength, courage and determination in fighting cancer will not be forgotten.
“He is a source of inspiration and reminder of why we must remain relentless in our fight to eradicate cancer,” Bepler said.
Mongo said he visited with Barden a few weeks ago and marveled that he still lived in Detroit. He asked Barden why he hadn’t moved, considering his wealth and the city’s high crime rate and taxes.
“He said ‘Detroit is my town,'” Mongo recalled this morning. “He said, ‘This is how I made it.’ That is Don Barden.”
Staff writers Kim Kozlowski, Mike Wilkinson and Santiago Esparza contributed.