One hundred and forty-one years after the Battle of Gettysburg, on the morning of July 2, 2004, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 71, allowing for the construction of 14 casinos with 61,000 slot machines across the state. Ostensibly the bill was to provide relief to the state’s horse racing industry and property tax relief for local school districts. Contrary to the process in some other states, there was no referendum.
On April 28, 2005, Chance Enterprises, led by David LeVan, a local philanthropist and former chief executive officer of Conrail, announced its intention to build a casino at Gettysburg that might eventually house up to 3,000 slots. Nine days later, locals gathered at the Adams County Agricultural Center and a grass roots movement, No Casino Gettysburg, was born under the guidance of Susan Star Paddock and her husband, Jim. Through the summer and fall, NCG representatives stood in Gettysburg’s town square speaking to the public and gathering more than 60,000 signatures for their petition. Paddock and other NCG members also attend every public meeting of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Like the Civil War, the fight over the casino, which would stand a mile east of Culp’s Hill near the intersection of U.S. Routes 30 and 15, has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Accusations of dirty dealing on both sides have flowed in newspapers and on airwaves in and around the town. Local charitable organizations dependent upon contributions controlled by investors in Chance Enterprises find themselves on the hot seat. Gettysburg College, which has received large gifts from LeVan, has not taken a stand, but faculty members have come out against the proposed casino. The Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association has also received contributions from LeVan, and has chosen to remain neutral on the casino issue so far.
National publicity has brought editorial condemnation from different sources around the country. The New York Times said, “Gettysburg is no place for a casino,” while the Hartford Courant called it “as inconceivable as poker at Plymouth Rock or baccarat at Ellis Island.” The Providence Journal called the idea as offensive as a “Ground Zero Casino and Resort.”
Controversy has also grown over the casino’s moniker. Although the proposed site is located in Straban Township, just next to the Borough of Gettysburg, its original name was to be the Gettysburg Resort and Spa. As opposition mounted, the investors changed the name to Crossroads Resort and Spa, and promised to have no theming that would “detract [from] or trivialize” the Civil War. But fears remain because part of Chance’s marketing plan is to pursue heritage tourists who come to Gettysburg to visit the battlefield.
Concerns over exploitation have rallied people locally and nationally. The Civil War Preservation Trust quickly mobilized its resources to block the casino. Paddock said, “We are grateful for the CWPT. They stepped in early with substantial advice and financial help, and they have continued to be a source of help as our grass roots group contends with the money and muscle of the multibillion-dollar gambling industry. People coming to town see their billboard: ‘Don’t Gamble with Gettysburg.’”
Primarily because of the casino proposal, CWPT placed Gettysburg first on its annual 10 most endangered battlefields list in February 2006. President Jim Lighthizer said, “While development throughout the Gettysburg area is a large and growing problem, this casino would bring the worst kind of sprawl imaginable. We at CWPT are dedicated to protecting our precious battlefields from disastrous incursions like this, but we can’t fight alone. In Gettysburg we’ve been lucky to work with a truly untiring and determined volunteer organization.”
Other national organizations have voiced their opposition, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, and the National Parks Conservation Association. Within the state, opposition has come from U.S. Senators Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter and Governor Ed Rendell. In March the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill 199-0 to block the casino proposal, and the Senate majority leader said, “There is a strong bipartisan consensus in the Senate that a casino in Gettysburg is a really dumb idea.” Local resistance has come from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, 36 churches, several Adams County business owners, farmers, fruit growers and thousands of residents.
Eighty percent of school districts, including all but one in Adams County (where Gettysburg is located), have said they will not take the slots money. For some it is a question of ceding local school control to Harrisburg; others have expressed concern about using gambling losses for education.
But Chance Enterprises has not given up the fight. The Gettysburg Borough Council agreed to support the casino, though an article in the April 4 edition of the Hanover Evening Sun claimed Chance Enterprises offered the borough $1 million for its support. A few local workers and trade unions have agreed to support the casino only if they can build it and represent the casino workers. By a 7-6 vote, the local Chamber of Commerce Board agreed to support the proposed casino.
The casino investors have suggested that Adams County needs this economic shot in the arm. They promise 3,000 jobs, two-thirds of which are to come outside the casino, and a potential for $2 million to $3 million in gambling tax revenue for the county. NCG has argued that the outside casino jobs will not materialize and cites several other concerns, including lost income for local residents and an erosion of the existing heritage tourism base. They also believe that benefits to local residents are particularly thin because the county is already one of the fastest growing in Pennsylvania and has low unemployment.
In April 2006, groups and individuals presented their testimony to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Over three-quarters of the presenters voiced opposition to the casino proposal, including Straban Township representatives who explained that despite the potential for a significant windfall in gambling taxes, they were deluged with calls from residents that protested the plan. The Adams County Farm Bureau talked about the negative impact of increased traffic on farming, and some local businesses voiced doubts about Chance’s claims of widespread economic benefits for the community. But most people expressed their fears about the potential desecration of history and the destruction of Gettysburg as they know it.
Regardless of the costs or benefits, for some it is simply unfathomable to consider the juxtaposition of the Gettysburg Address with a casino. Surely when Abraham Lincoln consecrated the National Cemetery, this was not the “unfinished work” of which he spoke.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is expected to decide later this year whether the Gettysburg casino will be built. If you are opposed to this plan and would like to get involved, please write your government officials, those of Pennsylvania, or the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. You can also contact No Casino Gettysburg at (717) 334-6333 or www.nocasinogettysburg.com, or the Civil War Preservation Trust at (202) 367-1861 or www.civilwar.org.
Keith Miller is a volunteer for No Casino Gettysburg.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.