Owner of Fitzgeralds casino, Don Barden, dies at 67

DETROIT — Don Barden, a prominent Detroit businessman who sold vegetables from the road as a child before making millions in casinos, cable TV and real estate, died Thursday. He was 67.

His casino holdings include Fitzgeralds in downtown Las Vegas.

Barden died from complications of lung cancer, two days after he was admitted to Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, according to Barden Companies.

“Don was a stalwart leader and businessman in this community, as well as a friend,” Mayor Dave Bing said in a statement. “We were aware of his longtime illness and dreaded this day.”

Barden made millions with cable TV franchises in Detroit and the suburbs, but lately the news about him was not flattering. His wife, Bella Marshall, went to court earlier this year in a dispute over his ability to manage his assets.

His Majestic Star Casino opened in 1996 in Gary, Ind. A year later, Barden launched a $50 million, three-deck gambling vessel to replace the Gary casino, according to spokeswoman Darci McConnell.

Besides Fitzgerald’s, Barden’s Majestic Star Casino LLC owns casinos in Gary, Ind., Black Hawk, Colo., and Tunica, Miss., but the company has been trying to reorganize in bankruptcy court since 2009.

Barden grew up in Inkster, near Detroit, where he sold vegetables from the family farm. He dropped out of college in Ohio but stayed in Lorain, Ohio, for 20 years, working a series of jobs before opening a record shop at age 22. He started a weekly newspaper, the Lorain County Times, bought real estate and became the first black member of the Lorain City Council.

Barden hosted a weekly TV show at the NBC affiliate in Cleveland and owned five radio stations in Illinois in the 1990s.

He rubbed elbows with the powerful, even teaching dance steps to President Bill Clinton following a state dinner with South Africa President Nelson Mandela in the 1990s.

“I’m on a mission to prove that a poor, young African-American from a very large family, from humble beginnings, can rise to the top in America in a free enterprise system,” Barden told The Associated Press in 1997 when he was pursuing a Detroit casino license.

Barden didn’t get a license and was bitter.

“I got screwed and the city got screwed,” he recalled in 2004.

Barden was one of the original 11 who submitted applications to be considered for Detroit’s three casinos. He made the first cut, but then was out of the running, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer said.

“He was bitterly disappointed that he was not one of the final three,” Archer said. “His application was the only one that was presented that would have been entirely owned by an African American. It did not stop him from expanding his business.”

The headquarters of Barden Companies is a prominent downtown building near Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers, and the Detroit Athletic Club where he was a member.

Archer called Barden “an outstanding and brilliant businessman who served the city of Detroit extremely well.”

“He could have lived anywhere, but he chose to live here. He brought new housing and other business opportunities to the city,” Archer said.

In 2010, Black Enterprise ranked Barden Companies number 10 in the top 100 grossing black-owned business with profits of $405 million. Barden was named that year with the business magazine’s lifetime achievement award.

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