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Gettysburg Casino Plan Raises Hackles of Historians

Thursday, July 01, 2010
By Dante Anthony Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Historical musings about the bloodiest Civil War battle and concerns over a continuing gambling debate intersected yesterday in a poetically timed proclamation.

On the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg’s 147th anniversary, a group of prominent American historians sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board stressing that a proposed casino near Gettysburg battleground will “unavoidably conflict” with the area’s historical significance.

Urging board chairman Gregory Fajt to deny the proposed casino’s application, the letter kindles a modern-day battle between preservationists and casino supporters that opened in 2005, when another application for a casino in the area from the same developer was put forth.

Building a casino close to the battleground “would be an insult to the men who died there,” said James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” and professor emeritus of United States history at Princeton University.

Some 160,000 Union and Confederate troops fought and 50,000 died at the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest and largest of the Civil War. It started on today’s date in 1863 and ended on July 3.

“The idea of a gambling casino on or even near [the battleground] is totally incompatible with the nature of that historic site, which is special and unique,” Dr. McPherson said.

“A casino can be put anywhere, but there’s only one Gettysburg,” he added, a message echoed in the letter that he and 271 other historians signed.

Many historians claim the battle was a pivotal part of the Civil War, not just because it was the largest and bloodiest but also since President Abraham Lincoln four months later uttered his famous “Gettysburg Address” there at the dedication of a national cemetery.

If granted a state license, Mason-Dixon Resorts & Casino will be at the existing Eisenhower Hotel & Conference Center in Cumberland Township.

The casino would be a half-mile from the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park, five miles from the borough of Gettysburg’s center and three miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. The application — asking for a gambling parlor with up to 600 slots — is currently being reviewed by the state’s gaming control board.

Though the casino would not be placed within Gettysburg National Military Park, the letter contends that putting a casino “so close to the Battlefield at Gettysburg is simply incomprehensible.” The casino’s proposed site would be next to where Union cavalry advanced toward the South Cavalry Field, which saw substantial fighting on July 3, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust. Claiming “that history stops where the park ends is a modern idea, and it just isn’t true,” said Mary Koik, spokesperson for the battlefield preservation organization.

The letter alludes to a similar debate in 2005, when David LeVan, a Gettysburg businessman and a developer of the proposed casino, applied for a 5,000-slot casino a few miles northeast of Gettysburg’s town center. The state did not grant that casino a license at the end of 2006, largely because of widespread public opposition, said Richard McGarvey, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesperson. Historians, including Dr. McPherson, expressed similar opposition over the last application in a debate that lasted 20 months.

Other historians signing yesterday’s letter include Garry Willis, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America”; Carol Reardon, who directs Penn State’s graduate studies in history; and Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board hopes to reach a decision by the end of the year, but it first needs to have public meetings — where people can voice concerns and approval — for the proposed casino’s application and the three others that have filed for the same license, Mr. McGarvey said. No more than one license will be granted, and it’s possible that none will be, he added.

So far, though, this proposed casino has gotten support in the region, said David La Torre, spokesperson for the proposed casino. The Gettysburg-Adams Chamber of Commerce last week expressed support for the casino, and the Cumberland Township Board of Supervisors did the same in April, Mr. La Torre said.

Pro-Casino Adams County has backed the proposed casino, claiming that the area has suffered job losses and could benefit from the gambling parlor’s 900 jobs. And 62 percent of those in Adams County support the proposal, according to a study conducted by Franklin & Marshall College that polled 600 county residents.

But others claim that the casino would have a negative impact on the area, namely in pushing away heritage tourists, who are different from typical tourists because “they travel for meaning,” said No Casino Gettysburg spokeswoman Susan Star Paddock.

“Those tourists have told us in droves that they are offended [by] the casino,” she said. “I don’t believe that anyone in this country outside of these investors and their cheerleaders would be OK with a casino at Ground Zero or at Arlington Cemetery or the sight of Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. La Torre said that there wasn’t the same kind of outcry when a Comfort Inn was recently built in a spot close to a cemetery and where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, or when a 120-acre parcel of land in the national park was purchased recently by a high-density housing development.

Ms. Paddock said, however, that these points are insignificant in light of bigger issues.

“All the major Civil War historians have come out in opposition. That’s the real story,” she said in response. “The rest is just distraction.”

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