(CNSNews.com) – A proposed casino located a half-mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park could bring much-needed jobs and income to the local community, according to proponents, but opponents of the plan call casinos “predatory” businesses, and say opening a casino near Gettysburg is a “national disgrace” that dishonors fallen Civil War soldiers.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, weighed in on the project last week in a statement, joining the concerns of an already vocal group opposed to the casino project.
"There is no way that The American Legion or the American people -- especially her veterans—will stand by and let the memory and meaning of Gettysburg National Military Park be besmirched by this misbegotten plan to erect a casino in proximity to this hallowed ground,” said American Legion National Commander Clarence E. Hill.
No Casino Gettysburg, a citizen group that has been fighting against casino projects in Gettysburg since 2005, endorsed Hill’s statement, and said the casino will hurt the image, and the economy, of the town.
No Casino Gettysburg spokeswoman Susan Star Paddock told CNSNews.com that a casino would “alter the cultural context of the Gettysburg National Military Park,” and that “it would be harmful to the economy of our area.”
“We have a unique economy that is based on heritage tourism -- basically people who travel for meaning --to have an experience of American history,” Paddock said. “The heritage tourists tell us that they do not travel to sites with casinos.”
But developers of the Mason Dixon Resort and Casino say that the concerns about the project are misplaced, and are looking to bring new jobs and revenue into the area.
“Clearly people are taking a moral stand, they’re making this a moral issue, without knowing any of the real facts, and not taking into account the state of the economy in Adams County,” Mason Dixon spokesman David La Torre told CNSNews.com
Adams County, Pa., where Gettysburg is located, has an 8.6 percent unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The gaming industry has been good for Pennsylvania, has been very good,” La Torre said. “Gaming has only been around in Pennsylvania for almost 4 years now. It’s created 12,700 jobs.”
La Torre said the Mason Dixon casino is expected to create 900 local jobs, and produce $66 million in local activity.
“Local residents want this project,” La Torre said, claiming majority support from local residengts in two public polls that have been taken on the issue.
Although the proposed site of the project would place the casino a half-mile from the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park, not directly on park property, preservationists point out that the site would be next to where Union cavalry advanced on South Cavalry Field -- a substantial scene of Civil War fighting.
According to the American Legion: “It is also believed that there are a number of soldiers buried in this area in unmarked graves.”
"The battlefield actually encompassed a greater area than is currently designated as a military historical site. In order to show the proper respect, we believe that something as frivolous as a casino should be much more than a half mile away," Hill said. "We need to be sensitive to the fact that this is a hallowed resting place and its tranquility should be preserved as much as possible."
La Torre called the American Legion president's comments “irresponsible,” and said that the project would not involve construction on undeveloped areas. Developers of the Mason Dixon are looking to renovate an existing resort hotel and event complex.
“I just think people don’t really understand the details of the project, the fact that this resort has been there for 35 years,” La Torre said. “The ground has been turned around multiple times.”
“The notion that there would be unmarked graves is completely the first time we’ve every heard anybody say something like that. That is frankly so irresponsible that it doesn’t deserve a response,” La Torre told CNSNews.com.
American Legion national spokesman Marty Callaghan said that the American Legion agreed with No Casino Gettysburg on preserving the sanctity of the battlefield, but it understands that a casino could have a positive economic impact on the area.
“Basically, we want to make sure that whatever happens, the sanctity of that battlefield is maintained,” Callaghan said. “We do understand the economic side, and it’s great to get an economic opportunity like that in Gettysburg, or any other area, but basically we’d like to see that casino located somewhere else besides right next to the battlefield area.”
“We just feel as though a casino is inappropriate to have so close to where men of our country fought and died and shed their blood,” said Callaghan.
La Torre, meanwhle, accused the American Legion and No Casino Gettysburg of hypocrisy.
“The Gettysburg Country Club, located on the battlefield -- 120 acres — bigger than our parcel, was on the auction block for more than a year, and it was sold to a high-density housing developer," La Torre said. "Now this developer hasn’t announced any plans yet, but nobody has said a thing about this 120 acres."
“Nobody has held a protest, nobody has held a candle light vigil, nobody has issued a press release saying, ‘We must protect this land,'" he said. "And this land is site of some of the most ferocious parts of the battle of Gettysburg, but nobody says anything about that.”
“Where’s the American Legion now?" he said. "The American Legion would rather focus on a facility that’s not even located on the battlefield and has been in existence for 35 years, yet they probably aren’t even aware of what’s taking place on the battlefield."
La Torre also said that a brand new hotel was just built “right next to where Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address.”
“The back wall of that hotel is 5 yards from tombstones,” La Torre said. “Where was the American Legion when that was being built?”
No Casino Gettysburg, however, called the accusations “a complete distraction.”
“Our organization is set up for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to keep a casino from being housed one half-mile from Gettysburg National Military Park,” Paddock told CNSNews.com. “We are not ‘We Are the World.’”
Paddock said the casino spokesman failed to mention that the housing developer cited has been working with preservationists to sell the bulk of that property back to the national park.
Casino opponents, she said, are not opposed to the particular building in question -- but they are very opposed to what a casino would bring.
“It has nothing to do with the building, it has to do with a predatory business, which is what a casino is,” Paddock told CNSNews.com
The American Legion's Callaghan, meanwhile, said the accusations miss the mark.
“We understand that there’s already a hotel there that’s been there for about 40 years, but hotels are different from casinos. You get quite a bit more traffic, and who knows what else is going to go up after the casino is built,” Callaghan said. “Casinos are different from hotels and country clubs.”
“There are thousands of casinos," said Paddock. “There is only one Gettysburg.”
A decision on licensure should come by the end of the year.