In Gettysburg, a battle over slots plan A former Conrail chief's proposal for a casino has preservationists peeved.

Posted: July 31, 2005

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — David LeVan, the former chairman of Conrail Inc. who is pushing a bid to build a slots parlor near here, was raised at the base of Culp's Hill, a scraggly knob where outnumbered Union soldiers fought off an all-night attack by Confederates during the Civil War.

Now LeVan feels a certain kinship with the besieged.

A wide range of opponents - from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) to the National Trust for Historic Preservation - have decried the proposed Gettysburg Gaming Resort & Spa, which is one of a handful around the state vying for the final two locations for slots parlors that have yet to be selected.

But those who know LeVan see that he's perfectly at home in seemingly opposing environments and that his casino proposal is in line with a man who wears a Rolex watch on one wrist and a well-worn Native American bracelet on the other.

LeVan is a former Fortune 500 executive who made millions as the chairman of the Philadelphia-based railroad, but customers at his Harley-Davidson dealership outside Gettysburg might have a hard time picking him out from the mechanics.

He has a long history of donating to preservationist causes, using his $1 million-plus trust to help partially fund a local historic-preservation organization and successfully fighting to save the train station where Lincoln arrived when he came to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Yet he wants to make money by bringing gambling within two miles of part of Gettysburg National Military Park.

LeVan has declined to talk at length on the proposal to bring a 200-room hotel, spa and slots parlor, hoping the national attention the plan has attracted would die quietly.

But as his opponents increase their efforts, he is starting to take a more public position in an effort to refute what he sees as an assault on him and on what he calls a poorly reasoned argument against the project.

"It's the personal attacks on my ethics and integrity that bother me," said LeVan, referring to allegations that he plans to rely on his close relationship with Gov. Rendell to win a gambling license and that he wants to exploit, rather than preserve, the historic value of Gettysburg.

"The fact is," he said, "they are trying to use this historical argument to reopen the debate on gambling."

Opponents of the plan say the casino site should be preserved because a wide area around Gettysburg was involved in the epic Civil War battle in 1863 - not just the part encompassed by the national park. Moreover, some say, Confederate soldiers gathered before battle on the very ground LeVan wants to develop. They say gambling is an affront to the memory of the thousands who died here.

"We know this property is going to be developed. We're saying that almost any other kind of development is preferable to a slots parlor," said Susan Star Paddock, a local psychotherapist who heads No Casino Gettysburg, an opposition group.

But LeVan knows this land as well as most of his opponents. His family arrived in Gettysburg at the start of the 20th century and has operated a heating and cooling business here ever since. His current home, which he is restoring, shares a fence with Culp's Hill.

He went to Gettysburg College before heading off to Philadelphia in 1968 and eventually upward through the ranks at Conrail. He earned $22 million from stock when the company was sold and broken up in 1997. He also served on the Philadelphia school board in the 1990s and on then-Gov.-elect Rendell's transition team.

Growing up so close to history, LeVan said, taught him to respect the past while looking to the future.

"I have fought to preserve the past, but this town also needs jobs and development."

Last year, 10 Harrisburg investors approached LeVan to be the front man for their group to build the $200 million casino project on a 42-acre tract at Route 15 and Route 30. LeVan owns an option on the site but will not purchase it unless he wins a gambling license.

The project would contain low-slung and tasteful buildings hidden from the street and respectful of the community, LeVan said, smoothing his hand over drawings that might be mistaken as those for an upscale shopping mall. "Not tall, not neon," he said.

LeVan argues that his opponents are marrying historic preservation with morality, neither of which applies.

"The legislature has already approved gambling, so that argument is over," he said. "This land will be developed for some reason, so why make a distinction between one business or another."

Directly across Route 30 from his site, cranes loom over a $250 million entertainment and hotel development under construction.

To him, the cries of historic preservation are more pretext than substance - an assertion the opponents don't exactly deny.

The Rev. Tom Grey, a national antigambling leader who heads the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, based in Washington, said he doesn't care what stops LeVan's project as long as it's stopped.

"This is our Pickett's charge," said Grey, who hopes to use any momentum won here to win more victories in Pennsylvania.

Opponents have begun meeting with politicians and appearing at Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meetings.

At a recent session, four members of No Casino Gettysburg squeezed together into the front row.

"We're going to be at every meeting from here on out," said Paddock, the group's leader.

LeVan says he understands that he has a fight on his hands.

"And to think: I could have retired and just ridden off into the sunset."

Contact staff writer John Sullivan

at 717-787-5934 or johnsullivan@phillynews.com.

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