James Lighthizer: Gambling With History (Re: Gettysburg)

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Lighthizer is the president of the Civil War Preservation Trust.]

The mere mention of Gettysburg conjures up images of beautiful, rolling Pennsylvania farmland and stone monuments commemorating the soldiers who fought there 142 years ago. Nearly two million tourists visit Gettysburg each year to pay tribute to the place where, as Abraham Lincoln said, this nation was given "a new birth of freedom."

Sadly, there are investors who simply do not understand what Gettysburg means to the United States. They want to build a casino in the shadow of this great national landmark.

These developers say they will create a tasteful establishment, one that will be in keeping with the area's historic character and appeal to both battlefield visitors and fans of gambling. Like casino proponents elsewhere in the country, the Gettysburg investors tempt local officials with promises of jobs and money. But most of these investors will have left town by the time residents discover how empty those promises are. According to economists who study the effects of casinos on local communities, for every $1 million a casino brings in, $3 million is needed for basic infrastructure and services. If this casino is built, the only prediction likely to prove true is that it will destroy the Gettysburg that generations of Americans have come to cherish.

Of course, the casino's developers argue that the site they have chosen is not "battlefield" land. What they fail to realize, however, is that historical significance does not stop at the edges of the national park. Roads into and out of town were of huge consequence to the battle. Practically every farmhouse and barn for miles was used as a field hospital for the wounded and dying.

Regardless of how careful and sensitive the developers think their plans are, building a casino at Gettysburg will destroy the town's character. Poorly managed growth and traffic already plague Gettysburg, and the casino will make congestion worse. It's true that historians are already appalled at the encroachments that souvenir shops and big-box stores have made on parts of the battlefield, but the size of the 42-acre complex, and the pawn shops and check-cashing stores that the 2,500 slots will likely generate, are far worse than anything that's currently there....

Even Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, who was a driving force behind the state's gambling legislation, said this month that he opposed placing slots in historical places that draw families. Having a casino anywhere near Gettysburg, he said, would debase the experience of children visiting this "great historic shrine." Unfortunately, Mr. Rendell contends that the final decision is up to an independent commission. But the governor and the Legislature appointed the commission members and are ultimately responsible for their decision.

Building a casino at Gettysburg would be more than a gamble; it would be folly. It cheapens the sacrifice of those who gave "the last full measure of devotion" on that field. Casinos are everywhere, but there's only one Gettysburg.

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