GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters Life!) - Plans to build a casino on the edge of America's most famous Civil War battlefield have sparked a modern-day battle that resonates beyond southern Pennsylvania.
Opponents of the proposed Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino told a public hearing on Tuesday that the 70,000-square-foot resort with 50 gaming tables and 600 slot machines would violate a treasured piece of American history. But those in favor of it argued it will benefit the local economy.
Both sides presented their arguments to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board which will decide the fate of the proposal before the end of the year.
"Adams County families need jobs, economic relief and most of all tax relief," said Carol Miller, of a local group called Families Who Support Mason-Dixon.
David LeVan, a local developer who failed in a 2005 bid to build another casino near Gettysburg, wants to convert an existing hotel, situated half a mile from the battlefield where the Union army fought the decisive victory over the Confederacy in 1863, into the resort.
He said the $75 million project would generate 375 jobs and save 100 more in the existing hotel. Recent opinion polls, LeVan added, have shown about 60 percent of local people support his plan.
But opponents, who have collected more than 30,000 signatures and stacked the petitions in cardboard boxes marked "Save Gettysburg" in front of the five-member gaming board at the hearing, are not convinced.
"This petition is signed by Americans nationwide and shows that this is much more than a local issue," said Cinda Waldbuesser, of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Gettysburg National Military Park is a national treasure that belongs to all Americans."
Critics also showed a video that included statements from filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Sam Waterston and historian David McCullough. They argued that allowing the casino to go ahead would be the equivalent of building a gaming hall at Arlington National Cemetery or on the site of New York's Twin Towers.
"Seven thousand people died in the Battle of Gettysburg," McCullough said in the video. "You can't not care about that."
But Brendan Synnamon, president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, a local nonprofit group, said his board had voted 10-1 to support the casino project because it would not impinge on the battlefield itself.
"We would not support a commercial property that would go on the battlefield," he said. "This does not represent a preservation issue."
Emily Golden, of the Adams County Youth Collective which is one of many community groups at the meeting, argued that the hotel hosting the meeting had been built within walking distance of where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, and there had been no protest.
"Let's just clear the smokescreen and see this for what it is," Golden said, "people who are opposed to gaming."
Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Patricia Reaney