Pennyslvania Gaming Expansion Roils Historic Site

By: - July 25, 2005 12:00 am

About four miles from one of America’s most sacred sites – the Civil War battlefield here – developers energized by a new Pennsylvania law that authorizes the largest expansion of gambling in state history want to build a slot machine casino.

Uproar over locating a 3,000-machine casino down the road from the site of the single bloodiest ;Civil War battle has sparked condemnations from various corners of the globe and even reached the Oval Office in the form of a Virginia congressman’s letter to President Bush, urging him to take action.

A group of investors led by Gettysburg businessman David LeVan was inspired to propose the slots parlor by a newly enacted law, upheld by the state Supreme Court in June, that vastly expands gambling in the state to raise revenue for property-tax relief.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will award licenses for 14 slot-machine casinos, with the first expected to open in late 2006. Under the law, the state’s four horse racetracks and three proposed tracks each get a casino, resorts can compete for two casino licenses, and developers can compete for the five remaining licenses.

Three of the five stand-alone licenses already have been designated – two for Philadelphia and one for Pittsburgh – leaving two up for grabs. Whether LeVan and his group can secure one remains uncertain.

Opponents of the Gettysburg casino don’t doubt LeVan and his group, Chance Enterprises, can afford the state’s $50 million license fee. Besides the casino, they want to build a luxury hotel and spa, restaurant and shopping mall. But can they afford countering public outcry?

Several of the state’s leading congressional members, including U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), have denounced the proposal. Historic preservation groups such as the 70,000-member Civil War Preservation Trust and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson also have excoriated it.

At the politically sensitive Gaming Control Board, which has not yet started to take applications, this could weigh against the developers. Chairman Theodore Decker recently told a legislative oversight committee the seven-member board would consider the battlefield’s integrity when taking up the casino application.

The fusillade of media coverage – most of it expressing criticism – apparently has not sent the developers in retreat, but they’re no longer talking to reporters. A week of repeated calls to LeVan and the Pittsburgh public relations firm representing him were not returned.

LeVan talked to the , which ran a story in May headlined, “Fury at casino’s Gettysburg address.” He told the Scottish-based Web site he didn’t understand the opposition because the casino is far from earshot and eyesight of the battlefield. “The only thing it’s going to have in common is the name Gettysburg,” LeVan said.

And that’s the issue in a rifle shot: the address.

Unlike other Civil War battlefields such as Vicksburg, Miss., where riverboat casinos are docked along the Mississippi River about a half mile from a historic site, Gettysburg National Military Park hasn’t faced a lot of development pressures.

“We’re fortunate in that it hasn’t happened often here. We have a good track record of acquiring land to preserve the battlefield,” said Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for the park, which is maintained by the National Park Service.

During the first three days in July 1863, the Gettysburg battle ranged across more than 22,000 acres. Today 5,989 acres of the battlefield and its historic buffer are protected. The National Park Service has plans – though no funding yet – to acquire another 1,200 acres.

In part, what’s riled preservationists is that the casino would be about one mile from a satellite historic site, the East Cavalry Battlefield. At this site – about three miles from the main battlefield and next to a 200-acre business park that began going up five years ago – Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s Union cavalry caught and stopped Major Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry on July 3, 1863, the last day of the battle.

For the local opposition group in the borough – No Casino Gettysburg – it’s more than historic preservation of the battlefield and the borough. The borough is home to a large population of young people attending Gettysburg College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary.

No Casino Gettysburg spokeswoman Loni Buck.said the proposed casino would bring crime, drugs and increased traffic, all of which would affect this “vulnerable age group.”

Moreover, most of the school districts in the vicinity including Gettysburg chose not to participate in Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s property-tax reduction plan, meaning local taxpayers won’t get a take of state gambling revenues. In an unusual arrangement, the law gives school districts the option of accepting a share of gambling proceeds in exchange for lowering property taxes, on which public schools largely rely for funding.

The property for the proposed casino is planned for commercial use, so opponents doubt they can win any zoning fights to stop it. They’re mostly banking on public outcry to get casino developers to back away from the ground President Abraham Lincoln famously dedicated in his address saluting the 3,512 Union soldiers who died there. The South lost 3,320 soldiers in the battle.

Peter Durantine is a freelance journalist based in Harris, Pa.

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