|By Amy Worden, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 31, 2010 --GETTYSBURG -- Nearly 150 years ago, with Confederate troops upon them, Gettysburg citizens united in their support of the Union cause.
Today a decidedly uncivil war over a proposed casino a half-mile outside the boundaries of the Gettysburg National Military Park has divided this historic community.
Since the casino plan -- the second in five years -- was unveiled in December, battle lines have hardened and deepened, pitting neighbors, businesses, preservationists, and veterans against one another as the debate has gained national attention.
A showdown is expected Tuesday in a small conference room at a Comfort Inn several hundred yards from where President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address in 1863. Nearly 400 people -- a record number for a Pennsylvania gaming hearing -- are scheduled to testify on whether gambling belongs near one of the nation's first "hallowed" grounds.
The debate over the future of Gettysburg, where 8,000 died during the historic battle in 1863, comes as a war of words rages across the globe over whether an Islamic center should be built several blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York.
The issues in both are linked to the question of "sacred ground," what defines it and what constitutes its desecration.
"Gettysburg will always be caught in that tension between commercialism and veneration," said Edward Linenthal, professor at Indiana University and author of Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields, which features a section on Gettysburg. "This is the latest chapter, not the last, in an ongoing conversation."
The casino proposal -- put forth by David LeVan, a former Conrail president and Philadelphia school board member -- would put slot machines and table games in a foundering conference center and hotel on Emmitsburg Road, a half-mile from the boundary of Gettysburg National Military Park and two miles from the Mason-Dixon Line.
LeVan -- who lives across the street from the park's visitors center and has personally invested $4 million in the Gettysburg battlefield and other local preservation projects -- failed in his first attempt in 2005 to win a license for a larger casino at a different site farther from the battlefield.
Now LeVan and other investors, including former state representative and Chester Downs ex-president Joseph Lashinger Jr., are vying with three other bidders seeking the last of two "resort" licenses. (The first was awarded to the planned casino at the Valley Forge convention center).
A resort license allows only 600 slot machines, compared with 3,000 at other locations, and 50 table games.
The seven-member Gaming Control Board, which considers local support, economic and overall impact, and the financial suitability of the owners, said it would make its decision by the end of the year, officials said.
LeVan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said his $75 million Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino project would rescue a struggling, 35-year-old conference center, save existing jobs, and create hundreds of new ones.
"We have tremendous amount of local support and our location, two miles north of the Maryland border, is the last untapped gaming marketplace in Pennsylvania," said Mason-Dixon spokesman David LaTorre.
Supporters say the casino would help boost business in the historic downtown and bring tax revenue to Adams County, where no taxes are levied on some large parcels, such as the 6,000-acre national park, and where unemployment stands at 8 percent, double what it was here five years ago.
The Civil War Preservation Trust, considered the nation's leading battlefield-preservation group, issued an economic study critical of the casino last week, saying Mason-Dixon greatly exaggerated the number and type of jobs that would be created. It argued that the casino would siphon revenue from existing businesses.
It has been joined in opposition to the proposed casino by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other organizations.
But the oldest Gettysburg preservation group, Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, has thrown its support behind the project.
Board president and Gettysburg resident Brendan Synnamon said last week that his board -- which has received financial support in the past from LeVan -- studied the proposal and concluded that it would help the battlefield, not hurt it.
"Preservation doesn't exist in a vacuum," said Synnamon, whose organization has helped fund the preservation of one-third of the battlefield since its founding in 1959. "We need a healthy economy."
Donations are down, he said, and if there was more funding, the group could preserve more of the parts of the actual battlefield that are threatened by possible development.
The National Park Service issued a statement that it took no position on the casino "because the site is outside the congressionally authorized boundary of Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Battlefield Historic District."
The Park Service also said "there are no known direct impacts to park resources," a line pro-casino forces have seized on to illustrate that there would be no assault on "sacred ground."
But Susan Star Paddock, founder of the citizens group No Casino Gettysburg, said its mission was to protect a the solemn spirit of a place born out of tragedy.
"Gettysburg is a mecca for heritage tourism, for people to contemplate the sacrifice of 51,000 casualties over three days," said Paddock. "It should be protected from inappropriate uses."
The proposed casino site, now the Eisenhower Conference Center, is better suited for what it is now, she said: a hotel for people visiting the battlefield.
"A casino changes the context of a community," Paddock said.
The American Legion registered its disapproval earlier this month, calling the casino near the site of the bloodiest battle on American soil a "national disgrace."
On the comments pages of websites, members of the local legion, who support the casino, fired back at the national group, saying it does not speak for them.
Visitors on Sunday evening at the historic cemetery where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address offered mixed feelings about the casino proposal in general, but agreed that a casino would not be part of their Gettysburg itinerary.
John and Cynthia Fitzgerald, who make regular visits to Gettysburg from their home in Warrenville, Ill., said they don't believe riverboat casinos have done much for the nearby city of Aurora, Ill., once a major manufacturing center.
"It hasn't really helped there," said John Fitzgerald, adding that he believes casinos prey on the weak. "Gambling feeds on people's addiction."
Cynthia Fitzgerald, who works in the health-care industry, said casino jobs don't always have benefits, so the burden on the hospitals remains.
Bill and Vanessa Langley of Goffstown, N.H., said they likely would not go to a casino in Gettysburg.
"Why would we come all the way here when we could go to a casino in Connecticut?" said Vanessa Langley.
Bill Langley said he would not object to a casino that was seven or eight miles away from the battlefield.
When told the Mason-Dixon would be a half-mile from the park, he pronounced it "too close."
Said Langley before continuing his tour of headstones in the cemetery: "You don't put a casino on hallowed ground."
Historian Linenthal said great monuments often fall in and out of popularity, but some have staying power and Gettysburg -- where the tide of the Civil War turned -- is one of them, which helps explain why people are so passionate about it.
"The Civil War is the center point of our history, and Gettysburg is the center of the center point," he said. "Gettysburg is enduring not just because of a battle, but because of Lincoln's speech -- vital things to America's sense of identity." Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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