Gambling plan causes a battle in Gettysburg

Casino: While some say the deal will bring revenue, others say proposal near historic site is `inappropriate.'

September 18, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Not all battle re-enactors here dress up in Union and Confederate threads. Lately they don business attire and "NO CASINO GETTYSBURG" T-shirts to join the struggle between reverence and revenue, a matter unsettled since soon after the smoke cleared in 1863.

The latest proposal, for a Gettysburg Gaming Resort and Spa with some 3,000 slot machines outside town, hits an especially raw nerve. But it trails a parade of battlefield tourist trolleys, shacks posing as Gen. James Longstreet's headquarters and a 30-story observation tower built less in the spirit of Seminary Ridge than Cape Canaveral. Hardly were the thousands buried when, in December 1863, an enterprising photographer advertised a set of battlefield views as "a splendid gift for the holidays."

Now Adams County rumbles with indignation. Chance Enterprises Inc., a group with a local businessman as its leader, proposes a slots parlor and hotel roughly a mile and a half from the nearest battlefield boundary in Straban Township, on a suburban commercial strip with its Wal-Mart, Staples and Wendy's.

Barbara J. Finfrock offers three words for the casino proposal: "inappropriate, insensitive, detrimental."

"Everyone is talking about it," and there seems no neutral quarter, says Finfrock, board chair of Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg. "They're either one way or another."

Speaking personally, not in his role as preservation planner for the borough of Gettysburg, Walter L. Powell says "I really think the [casino] developers have underestimated the anger that they have generated."

Powell knows about the tacky commercialism that has always marked elements of the local tourist trade, but he says the Gettysburg Gaming Resort and Spa crosses a line. He calls it "desecration" and says, "To identify this sacred ground with a casino is simply unacceptable."

David M. LeVan, a retired Conrail chief executive officer, philanthropist, entrepreneur and local member of Chance Enterprises, has other ideas. He insists that the casino would neither mar the experience of touring the battlefield nor dishonor the men who fought there.

"I've got a strong sense of wanting to be a builder," says LeVan, explaining why he entered this fray when, at 59, he is positioned for a comfortable retirement back in his hometown of Gettysburg. "Not just building physical structures, building things of value."

Indeed, the argument unfolding since spring never strays far from one person or another's idea about values, fitting this episode into a 142-year, post-battle tradition of wrestling with stewardship of the battlefield and surrounding areas. Or, to paraphrase Lincoln: how to dedicate, how to consecrate, how to hallow this ground?

Partly about casino gambling and partly about stewardship, the current uproar seems to rate in rancor with notable arguments past, as described in Gettysburg: Memory, Market and an American Shrine by historian Jim Weeks - who compiled the colorful details mentioned above. For instance, the 1970s argument about the 307-foot National Gettysburg Battlefield Tower (erected in 1974 and demolished in 2000), and the 1890s fight over an electric battlefield trolley, a dispute that landed before the U.S. Supreme Court (the justices ruled against the entrepreneur).

Weeks' 2003 book argues that Gettysburg struggles continually with an "apparent paradox" between "commemoration and commerce" - but only apparent. He insists that "the shrine owes its iconic status to the marketplace."

How Weeks would work a casino into that argument is unclear. Weeks died in an accident this spring, soon after the Gettysburg slots proposal was announced.

In the wake of the announcement, tourists can consider a new entry on the Gettysburg souvenir market: T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers that say "No Casino Gettysburg." They're being sold by a group of the same name leading the charge against Chance Enterprises.

"We just feel this type of business just doesn't fit with our identity as a community," says Susan Star Paddock, a local psychotherapist leading No Casino Gettysburg. "It's insulting to the heritage of our community."

She says she has not stepped up as an activist since Vietnam War protest days, but she has evidently shouldered this mission with gusto. There's a Web site, of course, and a petition drive. The group held a "Stop the Slots" bike ride in town at the end of last month and was considering staging a spring march at the State House in Harrisburg featuring Civil War re-enactors. At last, jokes her husband, James Paddock, the Confederates might yet take the Pennsylvania capital.

Gen. Robert E. Lee likely had that in mind as he headed north in June 1863, fresh from victory weeks before in Chancellorsville, Va. The Army of Northern Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg beginning on the morning of July 1, ending in Confederate defeat on the afternoon of July 3.

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