Bittersweet moment for Barden
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For Don Barden, it was a day that was both "crushing" and rewarding.
The Detroit businessman came to Pittsburgh yesterday for the first test run of the $780 million Rivers Casino, a day he had longed to see since Dec. 20, 2006, when he beat the odds and two better-known competitors to win the Pittsburgh slots license.
But it was a visit that proved to be bittersweet. It came about a year after Mr. Barden was forced to give up control of the North Shore casino to a group led by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm after Mr. Barden failed to secure permanent financing for the project.
As Mr. Barden stood outside the casino's main entrance yesterday, he said the day was "crushing in a sense emotionally." But he added he took pride in seeing the casino completed largely in accordance with his vision.
"I promised first class and that's what people got," he said.
After Mr. Barden won the casino license, the project soon encountered trouble. First, losing bidders Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. and Forest City Enterprises challenged the award. Then came lawsuits by the Steelers, Pirates and Carnegie Science Center over traffic-related issues, and later by Riverlife over the size of the casino's massive garage.
By the time Mr. Barden cleared the legal hurdles, he couldn't get permanent financing for the project, in part because he had no equity to put into it. He ended up defaulting on a $200 million bridge loan and couldn't pay contractors, prompting work to stop at the casino site.
He was forced to give up control and majority ownership to Mr. Bluhm and his group. Mr. Barden was left with a 20 percent stake.
In retrospect, Mr. Barden said he was a victim of tightening credit markets. He said the collapse of Bear Stearns and the bailout of other major financial institutions bear him out.
"However, I still delivered a product even though at a great price to me," he said, calling the criticism he endured during the financial struggles "unfair" and "outrageous."
Still, yesterday was tough. At one point he said he went to Mount Washington to gaze at the casino, which opens Sunday.
"You figure that this is the baby you created, took all the way to the 11th hour of birth and [then] kind of snatched out of your womb. However, I'm still happy to be part of it," he said.
He praised the new owners "for doing a tremendous job in finishing up the project."
The gaming control board also was blasted for awarding him the license despite financial woes at his other casinos and for giving the license to Mr. Bluhm's group without rebidding it.
Gaming board members Sanford Rivers and Kenneth McCabe said yesterday the final product vindicated their decision.
Mark Belko can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
First Published August 6, 2009 12:00 am