Preservationists battle Gettysburg casino

Battlefield too historically important to devalue it with a gambling facility, opponents declare

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HARRISBURG -- A new front opened up yesterday in the "second battle of Gettysburg,'' as a preservation group put the Civil War battlefield at No. 1 on a list of endangered historic places because of an effort to build a $200 million slots casino nearby.

"It wasn't a difficult decision to put the Gettysburg battlefield at the top of our 'at risk' list," said Mindy Higgins, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, which is based in Harrisburg but covers historic buildings throughout the state.

"Overwhelmingly the Gettysburg battlefield is the historic site that we get the most phone calls and e-mails about, with everyone saying please save it."

She's getting help from out-of-state groups such as the Civil War Preservation Trust, the National Trust for Historic Places and the National Parks Conservation Association.

"You couldn't find a more inappropriate place to put a casino than a solemn, singular place like Gettysburg," said Joy Oakes of the parks association.

"Travelers are hungry for historic meaning and authenticity, and Gettysburg is the real deal,'' she added. "What the casino developer is trying to do is to capitalize on the tourist appeal of Gettysburg. He's trying to commit 'brand larceny,' with Gettysburg being the brand. It's a place that has meaning to a lot of people."

Preservation Pennsylvania also listed other Western Pennsylvania sites as endangered yesterday. These include the vacant Lincoln National Bank in Avella, Washington County, which failed during the Depression of the 1930s. Local officials want to demolish it but Ms. Higgins is trying to save it so a community group can use it.

Other endangered buildings include the Winslow house, which sits on state Game Commission land in Elk County; an old church in Forest County that may be razed; and Roosevelt Junior High School in Altoona, which may be razed and turned into an athletic field, Ms. Higgins said.

But the group's focus yesterday was on Gettysburg and preserving its history.

Ms. Oakes urged the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to "protect Gettysburg and deny this ill-advised application to build a casino at Gettysburg.''

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three bloody days in early July 1863, and is generally seen as the turning point in the Civil War, with Union forces gaining strength after the Confederate defeat.

It's now classified as a national military park, with nearly 2 million visitors a year, said Ms. Oakes. It is "a family-friendly town where children and adults learn about a time in our history that shaped who we are as a nation today,'' she added.

The new battle over Gettysburg has been going on for 18 months, ever since Gettysburg motorcycle dealer David LeVan disclosed plans to build "Crossroads Casino and Spa'' in rural Straban, a township in southern Adams County. The casino site is about three miles from the center of the town of Gettysburg. Mr. LeVan is competing against two Lehigh Valley groups and two more from the Poconos to win one of only two stand-alone casino licenses that will go outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Critics say the casino, near the busy intersection of routes 30 and 15, is only about a mile from one of the Civil War battlefields. The site is directly across Route 30 from a new hotel, convention center and movie theater complex called Gateway Gettysburg and isn't far from other commercial development, including a Wal-Mart.

"Where were all these preservationists when all this other development was taking place next to the battlefield?" asked David LaTorre, a spokesman for Mr. LeVan's group, called Chance Enterprises.

Mr. LaTorre said that a casino has successfully co-existed next to another Civil War battlefield in Vicksburg, Miss., for 14 years and local officials there are pleased with the tax revenue the casino has produced. He said the casino in Straban would produce 1,000 direct jobs and another 2,000 spinoff jobs for local companies.

"The casino site isn't even located in Gettysburg,'' said Mr. LaTorre. "It can't be seen from the battlefield. It will spur 3,000 jobs in an area that needs them."

He said the casino will spur tourism, which now often lags during the winter and in the evenings.

The Gaming Control Board will hold a hearing Dec. 13 on the Gettysburg casino plan. On Dec. 20 the board is expected to issue five stand-alone licenses -- two for Philadelphia, one for Pittsburgh and two among the five groups competing outside those cities.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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