Casinos again pose a threat to battlefield

Tourists stand along the Union lines where Pickett's Charge was repulsed on July 3, 1863. As the 150th anniversary of the war closes in, concern about a possible casino nearby has grown.
Tourists stand along the Union lines where Pickett's Charge was repulsed on July 3, 1863. As the 150th anniversary of the war closes in, concern about a possible casino nearby has grown.

It is altogether fitting and proper that gambling be kept away from Gettysburg's hallowed ground.

Posted: August 10, 2010

By Mindy Crawford

In the months and years to come, Americans can expect to witness and participate in a wide variety of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Official committees and commissions in numerous states, including Pennsylvania, are planning reenactments, exhibits, lectures, concerts, tours, and other opportunities to mark the occasion. The vast majority of events are planned to highlight the significance of this turning point in American history, to encourage thoughtful commemorations befitting such a solemn theme.

But here in the Keystone State, there is one proposal up for state approval that is markedly different. We Pennsylvanians are confronted with a proposal that runs radically counter to that far-reaching commitment to the remembrance of what happened on the now-deathless fields where the Civil War was decided. The question before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board: whether, on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial, to license a casino at the gateway to America's most blood-soaked battlefield.

That's right - should gambling be given a Gettysburg address?

If this all sounds a bit too familiar, it should. Less than five years ago, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board rejected a prior proposal to build a casino on the doorstep of the Gettysburg battlefield, partially on the strength of the impassioned outcry from around the state and across the country. Now, however, another group of investors has again raised the specter of this ill-conceived idea, and chosen an even worse location for the venture.

Though the investors continue to make the argument that the casino would bring much-needed jobs to Adams County, the economic viability of an Adams County casino location is questionable, at best. A key argument made in the previous application was that a Gettysburg casino would draw patrons from Baltimore and Washington, logic that has also been applied to the current site. However, the explosion of gambling facilities throughout the Mid-Atlantic, vying for the same customers as an Adams County location, totally undermines a business model that the gaming board found questionable when it rejected the previous application.

Worse yet, a casino could have a disastrous impact on Gettysburg's heritage tourism-based economy. In Vicksburg, Miss. - home to a similarly famed battlefield of that war - the development of casinos was accompanied by a drastic decline in visitation to the National Park and a slow strangling of the local, tourism-based economy. Risking a similar outcome is a gamble Gettysburg cannot afford.

Such irresponsible and incompatible development also seriously threatens to undermine the sanctity of the famed Gettysburg landscape. Casino proponents have put forth a variety of creative measurements to distort the site's location and significance, but the truth is this: The casino would be located just a half-mile from the boundary of the Gettysburg National Military Park, on land identified as historically sensitive by the American Battlefield Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service. Suggesting that the battlefield and the visitors' experience somehow stops at the administrative, political boundary of a park, as investors attempt to do, is simply ludicrous.

Similarly, to imagine that a development of this type and scope will not spawn further inappropriate growth at the largely rural edges of the battlefield is naive. So, too, is believing that all of the promises made by casino investors as they seek their license, such as limiting construction to retrofitting existing buildings, will be kept once approval is granted. Bitter, long-term reality indicates that should amendments to state gaming laws be considered again in the future - as they were this winter, when table games were approved and the application process for this remaining license was reopened - this and other gaming locations will continue to grow to the maximum permissible size.

Next year, the beginning of the sesquicentennial will serve as a time for Pennsylvanians, and all Americans, to commemorate our past and celebrate our future. The two, of course, go hand in hand. Recently, nearly 280 historians wrote to Gaming Control Board chairman Gregory Fajt that the casino threatens the "essential meaning of Gettysburg's place in American history." And on the eve of our Civil War's sesquicentennial, protecting that legacy is particularly critical.


Mindy Crawford is the executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania.

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