Majestic Star owner Barden dead at 67; held two Gary casino licenses
Post-Tribune staff and wire reports May 19, 2011 9:51AM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Don Barden, a self-made businessman who established casino boat gambling in Gary, died Thursday at a Detroit hospital after a battle with lung cancer. He was 67.
Barden was the owner of Majestic Star Casino, which currently holds Gary’s two gambling licenses and runs boats at Buffington Harbor.
Barden was remembered Thursday as a pioneer in establishing a framework for Gary’s economic development. Majestic Star Casino opened in Gary in 1996, and a year later, Barden replaced Gary’s existing casino with a new $50 million boat.
“Even today much of our community still depends on the existence of the boats out there,” Gary Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chuck Hughes said.
When the boats first came to Gary, Barden trumpeted casinos as a way to make over the city and change its image.
“His heart was certainly in his enterprise,” Hughes said, “but also helping the citizens of Gary.”
Barden is regarded as the first African-American to own a national casino company. Majestic Star, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009, also owns casinos in Mississippi, Colorado and Las Vegas. Barden took over Gary’s second gambling license with the purchase of Donald Trump’s casino boat in 2005.
His relationship with Gary officials grew contentious in recent years. He filed a lawsuit against Gary in 2008 saying the city hadn’t lived up to its promises to improve property around Buffington Harbor and build a new access road from Cline Avenue. Barden stopped making regular gambling tax payments to Gary, though those resumed in April.
The city fought back by demanding back payment of casino taxes expected to total more than $10 million and is near a settlement, city attorney Susan Severtson said. Under Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, the city opened an off-ramp from Cline Avenue taking motorists directly to the boats last year.
“Mr. Barden was an exceptional businessman and a pioneer in the gaming business as an African-American... In spite of the differences we had to deal with on city issues, Majestic Star Casinos has been and continues to be a fine corporate citizen,” Clay said.
Gary Democratic mayoral candidate Karen Freeman-Wilson offered her condolences to Barden’s family.
“I know that we’ve had in recent times a contentious relationship, but it’s not always been that way and certainly Mr. Barden was a community partner,” Freeman-Wilson said. “The riverboats represent and continue to represent, of course, economic development for the community. Our job is to utilize that source in a way that it benefits our community to the greatest extent.”
Larry Buck, senior vice president and general manager of Majestic Star Casino in Gary, wouldn’t comment on whether Barden’s death would impact the two local casinos. “That would be speculation,” Buck said.
Buck had met Barden several times in his career and found him a true gentleman. “Always, as they say, a good guy; a pleasure to work for,” Buck said.
Barden grew up in Inkster, Mich., near Detroit, the ninth of 13 children in a blue-collar family. He dropped out of college in Ohio but stayed in Lorain, Ohio, working a series of jobs before opening a record shop at age 22. He started a weekly newspaper, bought real estate, became the first black on the Lorain City Council and owned a cable company.
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, recalled the first time she met Barden. Rogers served on the initial team that interviewed developers wanting to bring casino boats to Gary.
“He was the only one who actually had a boat and the only one who had gone to the trouble of acquiring a boat,” Rogers said. “We were very impressed with his background in business and the fact that he came from Detroit, much like the city of Gary.”
Over the years, Rogers’ working relationship with Barden grew into a friendship.
“We were kind of like a flagship for him,” Rogers said. “It was the revenue generated by the Gary property that helped him sustain those other properties that he had. I think Gary was always the property that he valued, and he knew what it meant for the rest of the properties.”
Post-Tribune staff writer Chelsea Schneider Kirk, correspondent Karen Caffarini and The Associated Press contributed to this article.