By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005
GETTYSBURG, Pa., June 15 -- The clatter of slot machine jackpots could soon echo near the site of the Civil War's best-known battlefield, a proposal that has stirred anger among some residents and Civil War enthusiasts.
A group of investors, led by former Conrail chairman David M. LeVan, has proposed creating the Gettysburg Gaming Resort and Spa, with as many as 3,000 slot machines, at the junction of Routes 15 and 30.
The site, occupied by a defunct auto dealership, lies about 1 1/2 miles from National Park Service land where the majority of the fighting occurred in 1863. It is closer to East Calvary Field, the site of a mounted skirmish that occurred during the three-day battle.
Backers say the gambling venue would be tastefully done, would create as many as 800 jobs, add as much as $10 million a year to the local tax base and be no more conspicuous than the fast-food restaurants and hotels that line Route 30 now. If not the slots emporium, supporters say, it could just as well be another Wal-Mart.
"It's not in any way going to tarnish the battlefield or use Civil War themes," said John Brabender, a spokesman for the venture.
"Technically, it's not even in Gettysburg," he said, noting that it lies outside the town's limits. He also said that some of the slots proceeds would be ploughed back into battlefield preservation and that when this is explained to residents, their support for the venue grows.
But a group of Gettysburg area residents, history aficionados and Civil War reenactors view the venue as no less than a sacrilege to the memory of the fallen soldiers. They also say a gambling venture would not fit in a small town where children still honor the war dead every Memorial Day with a procession to the cemetery to lay flowers on the soldiers' graves.
"When I heard about it, it just cut me in the pit of my stomach," said Muriel Rice, 83, a vice chairman of NO Casino Gettysburg. "We are a battlefield community. We respect the battlefield because it's part of our everyday life."
Though all Civil War battlefields should be treasured, said Conrad Richter, 72, Gettysburg has special significance not only for what happened here, but for the historic address President Abraham Lincoln delivered afterward.
"What you're talking about is disturbing the ambiance of a place that gives people the feeling of being a national treasure," said Richter, a retired employee of Duke University Medical Center who lives in Gettysburg and has joined the anti-slots effort.
The group has printed fliers, planned an informational meeting for Monday to hear the Rev. Thomas Grey, director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, and collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition. The proposal follows the Pennsylvania General Assembly's approval last July of a broad gambling measure to bolster the horse racing industry by allowing slots gambling at 14 sites, including racetracks, stand-alone venues and resorts. The law is now under review by the state Supreme Court.
LeVan and his wife, Jennifer, who have an option on the land, are well known around town and have contributed to many charitable causes. A call seeking comment was referred to a public relations firm in Pittsburgh.
"We are not attacking these investors as people," said Susan Paddock, who heads the anti-casino group. "But we are saying that everyone has at least one bad idea in his life, and this is theirs. . . . It's bad for Gettysburg, and it's bad for our country."
At the Park Service's visitor center Wednesday, reaction to the proposal was mixed.
"As long as it wouldn't take anything away from everything here, I wouldn't see anything wrong with it," said Gary Mendoza, 29, who teaches theater at Southeastern Louisiana University. "As long as it were far enough away and wouldn't bother anything, I don't see what the problem is."
But Robert W. Jones, 58, of Boise, said he objected to the idea.
"I think it would take away from the mystique of what guys gave their lives for," said Jones, a church custodian. He also said that, unlike the stores that line Route 30 into town, a casino is not necessary. "We got Las Vegas. We got Reno. We got Atlantic City. I don't think we need it."