Groups prepare for battle over proposed Gettysburg casino

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GETTYSBURG -- The numbers are amazing, and show how deep the emotions run on both sides of the Gettysburg casino issue.

More than 400 individuals and groups have signed up to speak -- some pro, some con -- at a public hearing this week on whether the state should license a gambling parlor containing 600 slot machines and 50 table games just south of the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Some speakers are strongly opposed to a casino, calling the historic area "hallowed ground" because of the many Union and Confederate soldiers who died during a three-day battle in early July 1863.

But supporters say the area needs the 900 or more jobs and local tax revenue that would be generated by the Mason-Dixon Resorts Casino, as it would be called (because it's only a couple miles north of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border). They argue that a casino would boost, not decrease, the large number of tourists who each year visit the national park and the historic town.

The hearing set for Tuesday (and possibly Wednesday) is one of four "resort casino" hearings that the state Gaming Control Board will hold in the next 10 days. The board must decide which of four competitors will receive the second and final resort casino license. The first resort license went to the Valley Forge Convention Center west of Philadelphia.

Gettysburg's competition includes the Nemacolin Woodlands resort in Fayette County; a Holiday Inn in Camp Hill, just west of Harrisburg (which will have its hearing today); and the Fernwood resort hotel in Monroe County in the Poconos.

But fewer than 20 people plan to speak at each of the other hearings, while late last week, the number of individuals and community groups for this hearing was more than 400. Since each individual gets three minutes to talk, and each community group gets 10 minutes (after an hour-long presentation by casino developers and other comments by local politicians), gaming board officials think the hearing could last for two days.

The Civil War Preservation Trust is urging opponents to speak or send the board written comments. Its website says, "Speak Out -- Defend America's Heritage -- Stop the Gettysburg Casino. We need your voice to succeed. Tell Gov. Ed Rendell and state legislative leaders Don't Gamble with Gettysburg!"

But a local group, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, supports the casino, saying it won't infringe on the battlefield's boundaries and would help economic development. Officials of Adams County and Cumberland Township, where the casino would be located, also support it.

The seven-member Gaming Control Board will decide this fall who gets the final resort casino license. Three board members are named by Mr. Rendell and four by state House and Senate leaders. The board chairman is Mt. Lebanon attorney Greg Fajt, a former chief of staff for Mr. Rendell.

As required by the state gaming law, Tuesday's hearing will be held at a location in Cumberland Township, the municipality where the casino would be. The largest available hearing room in the township holds a little over 200 people, so a standing-room-only crowd is assured.

Developer David LeVan, a Gettysburg motorcycle dealer, will lead off. He gets an hour to explain his plan for adding 600 slot machines and 50 gaming tables, each with six or so seats for poker, blackjack, roulette or dice, at the existing Eisenhower motel/conference center.

Casino opponents say there could be as many as 900 gamblers when the casino is full, which they think is too many. Still, a resort casino is much smaller than the nine (soon to be 10) full-sized casinos in Pennsylvania, which include six racetrack/casinos (such as The Meadows in Washington County) and three stand-alone casinos (such as The Rivers in Pittsburgh), each of which can have up to 5,000 slots and 250 tables.

Last week, the Civil War Preservation Trust and three other groups that are fighting the casino released a report by Michael Siegel of Washington, D.C.-based Public and Environmental Finance Associates.

It claims that putting a casino about half a mile south of the southern border of the Gettysburg National Military Park was a bad idea for several reasons, including insufficient water and sewer capacity at the site. Mr. Siegel also said that economic damage would be done to the national park and the quaint town of Gettysburg, which together form one of the state's strongest visitor attractions.

Mr. Siegel went to Vicksburg, Miss., the site of another famous Civil War battle, and said its economy has been severely damaged by the presence of four casinos, which have existed since 1995. There are many vacant buildings in downtown Vicksburg now, he said.

Likewise, with Gettysburg, he contended. "The proposed casino will destroy about 1,130 jobs and an untold number of existing businesses in Adams County."

Baloney, said David LaTorre, a spokesman for the project. He said the Civil War Preservation Trust has hired Mr. Siegel in the past and that his reports consistently support their views.

He insisted there "isn't a shred of evidence" that casinos take jobs away from their local communities. In Gettysburg, there would only be one casino, compared to four in Vicksburg.

Also, casino developers released a study of their own in the spring saying the casino will be good for the area. The report, by Econsult of Philadelphia, said the Mason-Dixon casino would create about 900 new jobs with $16 million a year in wages, as well as about $37 million a year in revenue for the state and $1 million a year in tax revenue for the county and township. The state uses gaming revenue to reduce property taxes and balance the state budget.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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