Roll of the Dice
Gettysburg, Pa., Debates a Casino Near the Battleground
By Darrin Youker | Online Only | July 12, 2010
Gettysburg, Pa., the site of the bloodiest battle in the American Civil War, is once again embroiled in controversy.
At issue is a new casino proposed for a location just half a mile from the site where Union troops pushed back Confederate forces and turned the tide of war. In 2005, preservationists and residents led a grassroots effort to defeat a similar casino proposal. Now, the same developer, Gettysburg businessman David LeVan, wants to build a casino inside the Eisenhower Resort and Convention Center on the famed Emmitsburg Road.
Historic preservationists believe the casino will threaten the sacred quality of the battlefield, and adversely affect a thriving local heritage tourism industry.
"It is offensive to put slot machines and table games less than 3,000 feet from hallowed ground," says Susan Star Paddock, a Gettysburg resident leading the fight to defeat the casino, the second proposal in four years. "It would change the cultural context of Gettysburg. There is only one Gettysburg. We don't want to change the identity of Gettysburg from a national treasure to just another casino town."
However, Adams County, of which Gettysburg is the county seat, has seen its unemployment rate rise to eight percent. Casino supporters say the Mason Dixon Resort and Casino will bring more jobs and tourists to the region.
"Adams County can no longer depend on its Civil War tourism legacy alone," says David La Torre, a spokesman for the casino developer. (LeVan declined to comment.) "Unemployment here is over eight percent, the highest in a quarter-century. Gaming has created 12,000 full-time jobs across Pennsylvania."
Jeff Kline, spokesman for Pro Casino Adams County, told the Patriot-News that Adams County needs more tourism venues.
"Folks here are in desperate need to see some change. People need jobs," he told the newspaper.
For opponents of the casino, the issue is not gambling, but location.
More than 8,000 soldiers died in three days of intense fighting, resulting in 51,000 casualties in what's now a quiet college town. Most of the battlefield is now owned by the National Park Service. The site of the proposed casino is located off federal lands, and the park service has taken no position on the development.
Adams County residents who oppose the casino have been joined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Preservation Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association, and Preservation Pennsylvania to call on LeVan to drop his second casino bid.
"It is a nationally important Civil War site that was preserved in memory of one of the nation's bloodiest battles," says Walter Gallas, director of the Northeast Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The developer saying that he wants to piggyback on that and put in a casino is an inappropriate response."
Casino opponents recognize they are facing a tougher fight this time around, due to the economy, says Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust. LeVan is grossly exaggerating the number of jobs the casino will create, he says.
"Last time, we defeated the casino when the economy was humming along," he says. "Now they are making these unsubstantiated claims about job creation."
Preservationists believe the presence of a casino in Gettysburg will hurt the region's overall economy and detract from the heritage tourism that is the lifeblood of the community.
"We have volunteers who have done research and are discovering that this will cause economic destruction to the heritage tourism, and that more jobs will be lost than gained," Paddock says.
The more than a million visitors who tour the battlefield spend money in other Gettysburg shops and restaurants, something that can't be said for casino visitors, Gallas says. Claims made by casino supporters that suggest gaming will pump money into the local community are dubious at best, he said.
"A better economic plan is to do everything we can to support the small, locally-owned, business," he says. "A casino is going to pull money out of the community."
Gettysburg, like many historic sites and battlefields, suffers from a lack of a protective buffer around the park lands, Campi says. That means it's up to local officials to consider the long-term impacts a casino will have on the historic battlefield.
Casino spokesman La Torre says that opponents raised little opposition to other developments near the battlefield. In the past five years, he points out, a new hotel rose and plans for high-density housing development were approved within close proximity of the park, but those projects did not draw the ire of preservationists.
"It continues to surprise many people in Adams County at how preservationists are attacking a project that will create jobs and pour money into the economy that is in a location that is not on one single inch of the 6,000-acre Gettysburg Park," he says.
Gettysburg is competing against three other locations for a single casino license, and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will decide who gets the license. The board will hold several public hearings prior to making its decision, perhaps as soon as this year.
Paddock and other advocates hope to show that most Adams County residents do not support the casino. There is too much at stake to give up the fight for Gettysburg, she says.
"It's a major insult to this nation," Paddock says. "A casino would never be considered this close to Ground Zero, or the Arlington National Cemetery."
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