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What if … Don Barden Owned a Detroit Casino

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Daily, Downtown Detroit welcomes thousands of guests visiting the MGM Grand, Greektown, and Motor City Casino. Today, the casino culture has ingratiated itself throughout America’s Midwest. Throughout Ohio, Michigan and Indiana 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, dollars and coins of broken industrial mecca’s are stabilizing casinos.

Casinos in Detroit have become a part of Detroit’s nightlife, entertainment culture and fine dining. In less than 20 years, three businesses have shifted the business identity of Detroit.

In 1996, Proposal E was a lead cause on the November ballot. Many Detroiters joined the cause gathering signatures and support to legalize gaming in Detroit. It was a big political issue. Michigan lawmakers outside of Detroit, business developers connected to Detroit, municipal and state politicians, and residents all made up the diversity of stakeholders in Detroit casinos.

Don Barden
Don Barden

In a resounding effort, Proposal E passed. Casino gaming was legalized in Detroit. Immediately following that, a frenzy of where, when, and who would receive the exclusive rights to Detroit casinos ensued. This politicized, polarized, and produced a climate that was fitting for Detroiters.

Then, Mayor Dennis Archer, along with a collection of supporters (primarily from the suburbs of Detroit) took on Detroit residents (abundantly made up of grassroots activists who led the charge to legalize gaming in Detroit). This chess match of will, wit, ignorance, and arrogance, I believe, helps define the complexity and fabric of Detroit. It’s fitting that a process involving business and political functionality became a personal matter. I feel, throughout my lifetime, Detroit politics have been destructively myopic.

Michael Jackson & Don Barden, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer
Michael Jackson & Don Barden, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer

Don Barden (R.I.P.) was an entrepreneur born and bred in Detroit. I met Mr. Barden in passing a number of times.  His demeanor and charm reminded me of a smooth maitre d’. Barden was most known to me and many Detroiters as the owner of Barden Cable. Before Comcast, (ughhh) everyone had Barden. (FYI: If you were willing to climb a telephone pole and hook it up you didn’t have to pay for it, but you ain’t read that from me).  Along with cable television, Barden’s business diversified in many ways. In 1996, a casino in Detroit was his business at heart.

Mayor Archer rejected Barden’s bid for a Detroit casino. This shocked Detroit! There were multiple reasons we believed Barden would build a casino in Detroit. Barden was born in Detroit. Barden was the only Black developer bidding on a casino, in a city that at the time was 85% Black (Barden would have held a majority interest in his casino, there are some Black people with percentiles of a percentage of casino ownership in Detroit). Barden brought in Michael Jackson as a co-developer of the casino as well. Barden also agreed to build an amusement park on the casino premises for families to enjoy.

What If Detroit …

I imagine if Barden would have won his bid for a casino he would have broke ground on a permanent casino as opposed to the temporary casino structures initially opened in Detroit. I think a permanent location would have been needed because of Barden’s amusement park. This development would have taken longer, but led to a grand opening.

Partnering with Michael Jackson heightens international attention and fame. Leveraging this partnership, I believe, the casino would have an entertainment theme. Naturally, the gala events honoring the 25th Anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, Motown’s historic Motown 50, and Aretha Franklin’s birthday parties would be held at Barden’s casino.

Michael Jackson’s collection of rare and exotic animals would lend an attraction to the amusement park. I enjoy the Detroit Zoo, but have always wished for it to be more interactive. I see horse, camel, and even elephant rides available for younger children. The excitement of an interactive Zoo for younger children would be mirrored by the excitement of rollercoasters and water slides for myself and other older kids.

Michael Jackson & pet lion, Rollercoaster, Don Barden & Bella Marshall
Michael Jackson & pet lion, Rollercoaster, Don Barden & Bella Marshall

Matching Don Barden in style and savvy was his wife, Bella Marshall (R.I.P.). With Marshall I shared a few longer conversations about creativity and bringing things to action. I gathered a better understanding for the endurance and vision Barden had through Marshall. She was extremely theoretical about reaching goals and settling for less was unsettling for her.  Many women I meet acknowledge the marriage of Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter and Beyonce Knowles as a power couple to aspire towards in business and relationship.  Detroit for years had that example in Don Barden and Bella Marshall.

Marshall’s influence on the casino would have been political and cultural. Politically, I believe, Marshall would have been instrumental in developing passages for the roads of travelers to meet the destination of the casino easiest. Culturally, I think Marshall would have been instrumental in developing a marketplace inside the casino that captures the essence of Detroit fashions, foods and nightlife. Till this day, every time I visit casinos in Detroit, I feel it’s clean and welcoming, but not Detroit.

Finally, I imagine the success of Barden’s Detroit casino would have pressured the other two Detroit casinos to take chances on hiring, contracting, and working with Detroit developers with business models catered to Detroit. I think the current business models look to make the Detroit casinos adapt to Las Vegas concepts. Business is a copycat model towards success. In copying Barden’s model of success, opportunities for more savvy Detroit business people with Detroit ideas would have been created.

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