26 April 2010 by Published in: Battlefield preservation No comments yet

From the front page section of today’s issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Gettysburg battles again over a casino plan

By Amy Worden

Inquirer Staff Writer

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – The struggle between the forces of development and preservation here on the ground where the nation’s most famous battle was fought is almost as old as the conflict itself.

Efforts to capture visitors’ dollars date to shortly after the 1863 battle, when souvenir hunters and relatives of missing soldiers arrived.

Today, amid heightened efforts to protect vulnerable parts of the battlefield and restore other areas to their original condition, preservationists see a new threat on the horizon: a proposal to put a resort casino in an aging conference center a half-mile south of the Civil War battlefield on the storied Emmitsburg Road.

“You can’t just stop at the borders of what the Park Service dictated,” said Nicholas Redding, a policy associate with the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington, one of several major national preservation groups trying to stop the casino project.

Redding, a former Gettysburg park ranger, spoke as he maneuvered his car down Emmitsburg Road, one of the principal avenues of approach for the Union Army and the departure route for Confederates as they retreated in defeat after July 3.

“It’s a pivotal part of understanding how the battle unfolded,” he said.

But casino developer David LeVan, a former Conrail chief executive who served on the Philadelphia school board, and his supporters maintain the resort is far enough from the battlefield that it won’t be a threat. And, they argue, any history along that stretch of Emmitsburg Road has been erased by the construction of motels and businesses in the last century.

LeVan, in an open letter to preservationists, said the $75 million Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino project would rescue a long-struggling resort, saving existing jobs and creating hundreds of new ones.

The latest rift comes five years after the first casino battle was waged here.

In 2005, LeVan applied for a slots license to build a casino at another spot, several miles east of Gettysburg. That project, which would have been much larger with 3,000 slot machines, was farther from the heart of the battlefield but closer to the historic center of Gettysburg.

Then, as now, the controversy pitted national and local preservation groups against a local developer and his supporters who believe a casino will bring needed jobs to a county where unemployment – at 8 percent – has doubled in the last five years.

And again, the dispute has divided this borough of 7,500, sparking wars of words on the local editorial pages and in Internet chat rooms, dueling public events, and competing lawn signs.

The divide appears to some degree to be geographic. In the borough’s historic district, “No Casino” signs adorn many brick houses; the lawns of properties outside the district are decorated with “Pro Casino” signs.

Each side has leveled charges at the other, including harassment and theft. Lawn signs have mysteriously disappeared. Most recently, Ronald Maxwell, director of the Hollywood blockbuster Gettysburg, entered the fray, delivering a tent-revival-style sermon to more than 200 preservationists.

Speaking at the Gettysburg Firehouse earlier this month, Maxwell led the crowd in a no-casino chant: “There are hundreds of casinos; there is only one Gettysburg,” and accused LeVan and his partners of seeking to “rape and exploit the battlefield.”

(Maxwell later apologized for that statement in a letter to the Gettysburg Times newspaper.)

The casino war erupted earlier this year when LeVan, who declined several requests from The Inquirer for an interview, joined with Joe Lashinger, developer of Chester Downs, to bid for the state’s one remaining resort casino license. The winning bidder will be allowed to install up to 600 slot machines and 50 table games in a hotel facility.

They are competing against three other applicants: one at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Southwestern Pennsylvania, one in the Poconos, and one in Mechanicsburg, outside Harrisburg.

LeVan, 64, a Gettysburg native who lives across the street from the new Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center, is seen as something of a paradox to preservationists because he has invested heavily in preserving the borough and the battlefield. All told, LeVan has invested more than $4 million in saving battlefield acreage and historic properties in the area.

Neither LeVan nor his supporters see his roles as developer and preservationist as conflicting.

“I am passionate about the battlefield, too,” said hobby shop owner Tommy Gilbert, a childhood friend of LeVan’s. “The battlefield is protected. What we need is an economic shot in the arm.”

But preservation groups say a casino will not only increase development pressure, it will forever alter the image of a sacred place in American history and drive away battlefield tourists.

“It will change the identity of the community from a historic community to a casino town,” said Susan Starr Paddock, president of No Casino Gettysburg.

Paddock led the opposition in 2005, when LeVan’s slots-license application was denied by the state Gaming Control Board, in part because of the lack of local support.

This time LeVan is ramping up his effort to rally support of residents in Adams County, and his spokesman, David LaTorre, says it has paid off. He cites a recent poll conducted by a research firm run by G. Terry Madonna at Franklin and Marshall College showing that 62 percent of county residents who responded supported the casino.

LaTorre feels the proposed casino location, about 90 minutes from Washington and Baltimore, makes it the most attractive candidate for the second resort license (the first was awarded to the still-unbuilt Valley Forge casino in 2009).

“The state has an easy choice,” LaTorre said. “Shoehorn another one in crowded casino areas southwest and the Poconos or approve a facility near the Maryland border, a virtually untapped marketplace.”

It is unclear when the final resort license will be awarded. The deadline for applications to be filed with the Gaming Control Board was April 8, and board officials say the review process will likely continue until late this year.

We only have on chance to prevent this abomination. I implore you: do what you can to write to the Gaming Control Board and tell them that you think that Gettysburg is NOT the place for a casino, whether the Maryland border is untapped or not!

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