Casino mogul Barden passes

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Don Barden, the self-made Detroit entrepreneur who once tried to buy the New Pittsburgh Courier and who surprised people across the state by winning Pittsburgh’s first casino license, has died.

Barden lost his battle with lung cancer May 19. He was 67.

Barden always bucked the odds, as he told a luncheon audience in Pittsburgh just weeks before beating out two competitors for the Pittsburgh casino license in 2006. He said anyone can follow his path to success.

donbarden
DON BARDEN

“The key is to put yourself in the ballpark and establish a track record so that when an opportunity arises, you are already poised to seize it,” he said.

In his case, opportunity arose when he was selling homes and leasing rooms in Ohio to GIs returning from Vietnam. He learned the Army needed space for a recruiting office. So for $500, he took an option to buy an old record store, took the option and his plan to the bank and got the $25,000 needed to buy the building.

Not long afterwards, Barden was constructing commercial buildings, including his first million-dollar deal for the Social Security Administration. So he was “in the ballpark” when his hometown asked him to negotiate it’s first cable television franchise. He sold his interest in the deal two years later for $300,000.

After learning everything he could about cable television, he bid on seven mid-west franchises and won four—the largest, in Detroit. He sold that one 20 years later in 1995 for a $100 million profit. He put that money into casinos, which were just beginning to be legalized outside of Nevada and New Jersey.

By the time he unveiled his plan for what he would call The Majestic Star casino in Pittsburgh, his company operated casinos in Michigan, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada and Mississippi.

But Barden’s go-it-alone style may ultimately have cost him in Pittsburgh. At, literally, the final hour, both companies he beat out for the state-awarded license appealed to the Supreme Court, causing Barden to delay construction for a year.

Heavily leveraged, and having wasted a year in legal fees, Barden began construction in April 2008 only to be hit by the banking credit crunch that followed the collapse of the federally subsidized housing market. Bridge funding he obtained for construction dried up and contractors and their employees stopped work.

On July 10, 2008 Barden told the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board he would transfer control of the casino to Walton Street Capital, a group led by billionaire Chicago investor Neil Bluhm. Barden said he had no choice after defaulting on the $200 million loan he used to begin construction.

“My dream will come true. I’ll still be a part of it,” he said at the time. “But those with the gold make the rules.”

When the renamed Rivers Casino opened in August 2009, Barden, who still retained a 20 percent share, made his last appearance there.

“It’s exhilarating to stand here and see your dream come true,” Barden said. “I want to thank the architects for a beautiful job, the people of Pittsburgh, the gaming commission, and all of my people especially my wife, daughter and son, the Detroit pension fund and Neil for stepping in to finish this project.”

Though he won allies by inking a deal to provide $3 million each to the North Side and the Hill District for development, and to assist funding the Consol Arena, Barden’s battles with the Pittsburgh Steelers over parking and traffic issues, and the Riverlife Taskforce over the casino’s looming parking garage, did not win him support.

In a statement issued last week, Rivers Casino, CEO Greg Carlin called Barden a “visionary.”

“Thanks to him, Pittsburgh has the world-class Rivers Casino on the North Shore,” he said. “His legacy lives on.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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