Debate on controversial Gettysburg casino goes national

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board will soon decide whether to greenlight a controversial casino project a half mile from Gettysburg National Military Park. Ahead of the decision, leaders of the local grassroots opposition to the project have roped in some big-name history buffs to star in videos that argue the casino will be a blight on the memory of the Civil War soldiers who died there in 1863.

"Placing a casino proximate to this battlefield is profane," documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says in one of the videos against the project, which you can watch below. "It would be just a horrible thing to in any way detract from the experience of Gettysburg."

President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer David McCullough, and Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha also appeared in video interviews laying out the reasons they oppose the casino. Actor Sam Waterston urges residents "not to sell out" in an ad that appeared on local TV stations, and ads on bus stations around the Pennsylvania state capitol carried messages like "They died here to build a country, not a casino." An anonymous donation to the Civil War Preservation Trust and volunteer work have helped pay for the videos and ads, according to No Casino Gettysburg spokesman Jeff Griffith.

Casino developer and motorcycle dealer David LeVan argues the project will create jobs and will go up on a site that is already developed -- the Eisenhower Hotel. "I'm happy to report the vast majority of Adams County residents stand shoulder to shoulder with us in this effort,"  LeVan said at the latest hearing, based on polls he commissioned, according to the Gettysburg Times. Opponents argued his polling question did not mention the distance of the casino from the park, the main point of dispute. (The Hanover Evening Sun, a local paper, also found more support for the project than opposition in a January survey.)

The head of the No Casino Gettysburg group, Susan Paddock, tells The Lookout she is worried the casino will not attract many new tourists to the town and will "turn off" the heritage tourists Gettysburg attracts now. She says if the casino were moved farther from the site, most of her fears would be assuaged.

"I would personally like to see a buffer zone around the national military park," Paddock says. "If this casino had been proposed 10 miles away probably two-thirds of the opposition would disappear."

One local paper, the Harrisburg Patriot News, editorialized in favor of the casino this weekend, dismissing concerns that the gaming operation will change the character of Gettysburg. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the York Daily Record have taken stands against the project, while the Hanover Evening Sun declined to endorse either side in the argument, according to a round-up by the No Casino Gettysburg group.

"The plan is not to construct a casino on the battlefield but at the existing Eisenhower Hotel and Convention Center," the Patriot-News argued. "It is about two miles from the main entrance of the battlefield to the main entrance of the Eisenhower. Visitors on the battlefield likely won't even see it."

LeVan proposed a casino a bit farther away from Gettysburg National Park in 2005. But that project was shelved, due in part to the activism of local residents such as Paddock, a social worker who is again leading the charge against the casino. Griffith from the No Casino groups notes that the economy has worsened since 2006, so they are facing a more difficult battle this time around. A local pro-casino group outnumbered the opposition at a recent gaming board hearing.

In response, Griffith and Paddock have sought to make the opposition more national this time, bringing in Burns and other public figures to argue the park is hallowed national ground. The Civil War Preservation Trust has collected more than 30,000 signatures opposing the project, and commissioned a report that concluded the casino would not be good for the local economy based on the experience of Vicksburg, Mississippi, another town adjoining a famous Civil War battlefield.

LeVan disagrees, and his group released a report claiming the casino would create more than a thousand jobs and boost local businesses. The gaming board makes it decision Dec. 16.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misspelled The Philadelphia Inquirer.

(Tourists at Gettysburg National Military Park: AP)