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At hearing, developer defends Gettysburg casino plans

August 31, 2010
  • A hearing Tuesday about a casino proposed in Adams County, Pa., near the Gettysburg battlefield drew hundreds of people.
Jennifer Fitch, Staff Writer

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) -- A divisive plan to build a casino near the site of the Civil War's tide-turning Battle of Gettysburg is in the mold of many other communities that have successfully meshed gambling with historical tourist destinations, the developer told state regulators Tuesday.

With opponents enlisting Hollywood power as they rally around the cry of "Save Gettysburg," developer David LeVan pitched his plan for the Mason Dixon Resort & Casino as a well-worn concept in places such as Vicksburg, Miss., and Deadwood, S.D., that can bring tourists, investment and tax revenue to the Gettysburg area.

"Mason Dixon can empower the region and re-energize a struggling county," LeVan told the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

The gaming board, which is considering Mason Dixon's application to build the casino, was listening to comments from casino principals, supporters and opponents at a public meeting near Gettysburg National Military Park.

Dogged opponents responded with a polished video featuring filmmaker Ken Burns, actors Sam Waterston and Matthew Broderick, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, and local residents suggesting that the casino's approval would betray the country's duty to protect the place where soldiers died to save the nation.

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"We are asking you to please deny this application, to make your legacy saving Gettysburg," Susan Starr Paddock of No Casino Gettysburg told gaming board members at the video's conclusion.

More than 390 people were registered to speak. Mason Dixon is competing with three other groups for a state casino license. Pennsylvania-based casino operator Penn National Gaming Inc. would help finance and run Mason Dixon.

The $75 million plan to transform an existing hotel and conference center less than a mile from the park's southern boundary is pitting resident against resident. Signs reading "No Casino" and "Pro Casino" dot windows throughout the quaint streets of Gettysburg, which attracts more than a million tourists each year for shopping, eating and lodging.

Opponents say a casino would cheapen the reputation that draws tourists to the town and surrounding 6,000-acre park that mark the site where 160,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fought for three days in summer 1863 -- about 50,000 of them killed, wounded or captured in the bloodiest battle North America has ever seen.

When it was done, Gen. George Meade's Army of the Potomac stopped the northward advance by General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, helping deliver a victory to Union forces.

A previous attempt by LeVan to win a Gettysburg-area casino license was rejected in 2006 amid a local outcry.

LeVan, a former Conrail Inc. chairman and well-known local philanthropist and preservationist, lives across the street from the park's museum and visitor center.

Speaking to the gaming board, he said Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania's last untapped gambling market -- an hour from Baltimore and Washington -- and has a lot in common with Vicksburg, where the North won another important Civil War battle in 1863.

A video he showed to gaming board members characterized Vicksburg as a Civil War tourist town that was struggling before the arrival of casinos more than a decade ago helped it draw more tourists and invest in its streets, sewers and qualify of life.

However, opponents counter that casinos have drawn tourists away from downtown Vicksburg, bankrupting businesses and leaving empty storefronts, and challenged Mason Dixon's revenue projections as unduly rosy and reliant on area residents of modest means.

The stars lending their names to the opposition effort have personal connections to the cause. Burns made the 1990 documentary "The Civil War", which featured Waterson as President Abraham Lincoln and McCullough's narration; and Broderick starred in the 1989 film "Glory," about black Civil War soldiers.

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