As you drive south from Memphis to Tunica, Mississippi, on Highway 61, the road winds between shacks and cinder-block churches and acres of unpicked, rotting cotton, ruined by the relentless rain. Locals walk along the edge of the road, their shabby clothing offering little protection against the downpour. Its a scene an outsider, knowing only the states impoverished reputation, would expect to find in northern Mississippi. Then the night sky brightens, lit by large flashing signs, each more garish and enticing than the one before.
As you turn toward the casinos, the roads widen and become smooth. Billboards are everywhere, boasting of the loosest slots, the biggest payoffs, the best entertainment. Fitzgeralds casino sits at the end of one of these roads like a gamblers Oz. Its set beyond a huge medieval-inspired gate, in the middle of cotton fields and grazing cattle, and flanked on all sides by shamrock-shaped signs heralding the luck of the Irish.
But the luck of the Irish ran out last year for the Fitzgeralds Gaming Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy and agreed to sell three of their four casinos to Don Barden. Its an unmistakable irony that here in the Deep South the luck of the Irish now manifests itself in one of the countrys wealthiest African Americans. Last month the $140 million cash buyout deal for the casinos was finalized and in early December Barden took over. He thinks its the ideal time to break into the third-largest gaming market in the country.
We have people now taking buses from Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois to come to Tunica, Mississippi, says Barden. I have people who are now stopping here on their way to Louisiana. Theyre adding Tunica to their itinerary.
While the rest of the nation frets over the possibility of recession, Barden rests easy, sure that the gaming industry will be mostly unaffected.
Casinos are typically not hit that hard, says Barden. During the last recession I think the casinos fared fairly well. I wouldnt say that we are recession-proof, obviously. But we remain viable and healthy and we just have to tighten our belts and be very conscious of how we spend. We cant overspend during an economic downturn. Other than that, I think well do okay.
Know When to Hold em
This is not the first time Don Barden has spent a lot of money on something others might consider a risky venture. Each time hes done it, the stakes have gotten higher.
I have been a real estate developer in a past life and a cable television operator, says Barden. I like to build things and do things and I see myself getting involved here. Not only with this company and building this operation but doing other things in the community. Ive built apartments and office buildings. So if the opportunity presents itself and its feasible and economically viable, were going to pursue it.
Long before he entered the casino business, Barden liked to gamble. One story is that Barden bought his first casino because he loved playing high-dollar blackjack, but its a story Barden is quick to deny. I play blackjack occasionally, Barden says, laughing, but thats not how I got into the casino business. I saw this as a good opportunity for business and development. His personal story could win a Bootstrap Award from Oprah. Its safe to say he started out several steps behind most of the businessmen he deals with today. Raised near Detroit in Inkster, Ohio, in the pre-civil rights era, Barden was one of 13 children. His family lived on a nine-acre farm, where they grew vegetables and raised chickens to put food on the table.
After graduating high school -- where he was captain of the basketball and football teams -- Barden entered Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. About a year into his education, Bardens money ran out and he was forced to quit school. So he moved in with his brother in Lorain, Ohio, and started working a string of odd jobs -- mover, plumbing and heating laborer, short-order cook, and shipbuilder -- all the while setting his sights on something bigger. Never did he suspect that in 15 years time hed have turned his first million.
Know When to Fold Em
In 1965, at the age of 21, Barden opened his first business, Donnies Record Shop, in Lorain. He was living a Motown kids dream of selling music to his friends. Within a year he had started his own record label, recording and distributing local music.
At 23, he decided to enter the news business so he started The Lorain County Times, a weekly newspaper where he was both editor and publisher, positions he held for five years. The news experience turned him on to the lucrative fields of public relations and advertising, so he started a P.R. and advertising firm, later moving from print to television. At 26, Barden became the news anchor for WUAB television in Lorain. A year later he began an 11-year run as host of a local television news program for the NBC affiliate in Cleveland.
Though he was successful by most definitions, Barden didnt get his first real break in the business world until 1971, when he heard that military recruiters were looking for office space. He took out a second mortgage on his house and sold the record shop, using the money to buy a building for $25,000. He remodeled it, rented it to the military, and began clearing $200 a month profit. Two years later he sold the building for $50,000.
This began a cycle of buying and selling that led Barden to start his own real estate business, Waycor Development Company in Detroit. The $50,000 from his first sale was reinvested in an $85,000 building, which led to a $1 million building and then a $4 million building. He had hit the big time.
He joined the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce and was elected to the city council. He played golf with community leaders and solidified his connections while still hosting the weekly television program. He was also reading television trade magazines.
When a supposedly risky new technology known as cable television began to emerge, Barden had a jump on the competition. He paid $2,000 each for cable franchises in Lorain and nearby Elyria. When he sold the franchises a few years later, he cleared $400,000.
In 1981, the money he made off his first franchises was invested in a $3.4 million cable franchise in Inkster. Later he bought franchises in Romulus and Van Buren, Michigan. By 1981 his assets totaled about $6 million.
Ever the gambler, Barden then put all but $1 million of his fortune on the line to get the cable franchise for Detroit. The Detroit market was seen as risky and larger cable providers didnt want it. The gamble paid off -- again, big time. Barden says when the Barden Companies sold the last of its cable interests in 1994, he cleared $115 million.
Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run
While he was growing his cable business, Barden explored other opportunities as well -- opportunities that also proved quite lucrative. In 1989, his development company built a $61.5 million jail facility in Hamtramck, Michigan. In 1991, he built a 144-unit apartment complex in Detroit. The next year he bought the 40,000-square-foot Madison Building in Detroit. He bought radio stations in Coal City and Ottawa, Illinois, and later added two stations in Joliet, Illinois.
In 1993, Barden decided to hop on board the casino boat craze. He applied for and received a license to own and operate a riverboat casino in Gary, Indiana. He sold his cable interests to fund the casino venture and to pursue development opportunities abroad.
The casino bug had bitten him hard, and together with sometime business partner Michael Jackson (yes, the Michael Jackson) he attempted to buy South Africas Sun City casino. Though that deal fell through, he was intrigued by Africa and in 1996 opened an office in Namibia, a small country with solid economic and political structures..
Stateside, the Majestic Star casino, his Gary riverboat venture, opened to the public. One year later, riding the success of his first operation, the Majestic Star II was opened. Barden was now entrenched in the casino industry and he wanted more. He and Jackson put together an exhaustive proposal for the Majestic Kingdom -- a casino, hotel, theme park, and dining and shopping complex to be built in Detroit. In 1997, their application for a license to own and operate a casino in Detroit was denied.
This time Barden didnt walk away -- and it cost him. Citing racism and discriminatory city politics, Barden financed a voter referendum on the Majestic Kingdom.
Soon campaign-like billboards, banners, bumper stickers, and T-shirts emblazoned with Barden began popping up all over town. Barden gave speeches and pep talks. But when the votes were tallied on August 4, 1998, Barden lost not only the license but also the hundreds of thousands of dollars the referendum had cost him. It was his first big failure.
In a move that led to many seeing Barden as a sore loser, he sued the city for $108 million and attempted to block the opening of several licensed casinos. A lower court ruled against him and he appealed. On October 23, 2000, a federal appeals court rejected Bardens lawsuit, saying that he lacked the standing to sue. Barden had lost his fight and much of his reputation in Detroit.
Barden turned his attentions back to Africa, where he befriended Sam Nujoma, the president of Namibia, and brokered a deal between General Motors and the Namibian government. In 1998, Barden opened an automotive upfit factory in Windhoek, Namibias capital city. Bardens company converted American right-side drive vehicles to left-side drive for the African market, then sold them. His wife, Bella Marshall Barden -- an attorney and former finance director for Detroit mayor Coleman Young -- ran the African office from Detroit.
Barden and Jackson then attempted to buy Las Vegas Desert Inn casino but were denied a gaming license. When Fitzgeralds filed for bankruptcy it seemed the ideal solution for Barden, who was hungry to enter the Las Vegas market. Barden insists, however, that Fitzgeralds Tunica casino was the main reason for the buyout.
Tunica is the gem of the Fitzgeralds properties, says Barden. We purchased Fitzgeralds because of Tunica. In fact, that is the only reason we wanted to buy any of the Fitzgeralds properties. It just happened that we bought two additional casinos because the price was right. We thought we would be better off [with] four casinos instead of one or two.
And so Majestic Star Casino became Majestic Investor Holdings, LLC -- adding properties in Blackhawk, Colorado, Tunica, and Las Vegas to its original Gary, Indiana, casino. It established Barden as not only the first African American to wholly own a casino but as a major player in the casino industry.
Barden plans to develop the waterfront area around the Majestic Star Casino and says hell do the same in Tunica, where the county plans to build a river boardwalk and recreation area right up to his property.
Barden says hell extend the boardwalk past Fitzgeralds, which will make it the only casino with actual river frontage -- plus a docking area for paddleboats, cruise ships, and pleasure boats.
I love the layout here, says Barden. When you drive down the boulevard you see this expansive, beautiful facility and all of the potential that exists. It has the Mississippi River as a backdrop and this great riverfront park being constructed at our backdoor. Theres lots of acreage here for us to expand.
Though he hints that the hotel and casino facilities might be enlarged, Barden doesnt say exactly what his plans are for Fitzgeralds.
Our imagination notwithstanding, we can do anything we want, says Barden. We know this property has tremendous potential.
What he has already done for the casino is diversify the management team.
When I first came here, the pictures of the managers on the wall were all of white males, says Barden. Were going to have more women as managers and more African Americans as managers. We are transferring some qualified people who are already with our company and are from this area. So there are two females whose pictures will be on the wall. Of course, mine will be there too, he jokes.
When the Dealins Done
With casinos in Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, and Nevada, an automotive factory in Namibia, and significant property holdings throughout the Midwest, Barden seems temporarily pleased.
Im pretty content right now, he says. We more than doubled the size of our company in the last five years. If we can do that again in the next five years Id be very satisfied.
Rumors circulate that Barden may change the name of all of his casinos to Majestic Star, though he denies having such plans. Hes also quick to say that he has no plans to target any specific gaming markets -- namely the growing African-American gaming populace.
Were targeting everybody, says Barden. We target demographics. The middle-market customer, regardless of ethnicity, is our target. We look at income levels, age levels, what people like and enjoy, the entertainment experience. Whoever fits that category, we want them. We will advertise and market across the board.
So whats next? Don Barden laughs at the question.
I dont know. Maybe space travel, he says, his blue eyes squinting at the thought. Then he seems to actually consider it.
Maybe space travel, he says again, warming to the idea.