New owner calls Fitz ‘first step in our plan’

December 11, 2001 7:41 AM
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Vowing to expand his Majestic Star brand, Don Barden is basking in the glow of Fitzgerald’s neon lights.

The Detroit businessman took over the Downtown resort last week, along with Fitzgeralds properties in Tunica, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo. Barden’s $149 million purchase ”” along with his Gary, Indiana-based Majestic Star ”” gives him a presence in three of the nation’s top five gaming markets. He also claims the distinction of being the first and only African-American to wholly own a casino company.

With 638 rooms, the Las Vegas Fitzgeralds is by far Barden’s largest hotel-casino. And it differs substantially from his other holdings because 90 percent of its business comes from out-of-state hotel guests.

But like Majestic Star, Fitzgeralds caters primarily to value-conscious middle-market slot customers. Barden said he has no immediate plans to change the Fitz’s operations.

“The Fitzgeralds purchase is the first step in our plan to grow Majestic Star beyond our home in Indiana. We’re going to build a highly competitive national casino brand,” he pledged.

Analysts say Barden, 57, faces some daunting odds. While Black Hawk accounts for nearly three-quarters of the gaming revenue in Colorado, and the jurisdiction’s revenues jumped a solid 13 percent this year, the 596-slot Fitzgeralds property is getting keen competition from the new Hyatt casino. Meantime, the Tunica market, home of the 1,400-slot, 507-room Fitz, slumped badly this year.

In Indiana, Barden’s flagship Majestic Star ranks last in market share at 12.5 percent of the Chicagoland area. It did, however, post the second highest revenue growth in the region this year.

Barden’s four casinos currently have 4,300 slots, 110 table games, 1,100 hotel rooms and 3,800 employees.

Prior to opening the Majestic Star in 1996, the entrepreneurial Midwesterner built a modest cable empire in the Detroit area. He guided The Barden Companies from revenues of $600,000 to more than $90 million in 11 years, making it the 13th largest black-owned business in the nation. He sold that operation to Comcast Corp. in 1994.