Gettysburg address for casino splits town famed for civil war

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The town of Gettysburg will always be known as the site of one of the most famous and bloody battles in US military history - a turning point in the Civil War and the scene of ferocious close-quarter fighting that cost 7,000 men their lives.

Now the people of this quiet Pennsylvania town, annually visited by almost two million people, are involved in another conflict, relating to the preservation of the battlefield itself.

The two sides are divided over a plan to build a casino on the outskirts of the town. Those in favour say it will bring much-needed jobs and boost the tax base while those against say it will undermine the integrity of the battlefield location. Worse still, say some, building the casino would effectively desecrate hallowed ground.

As the US Civil War divided the nation, even splitting families and turning communities against their neighbours, so the casino has divided the people of Gettysburg with campaign groups forming on both sides to make their case.

Local businessman Tommy Gilbert, whose great-great grandfather was a Unionist drummer boy for the Adams County Company K during the battle, was one of the founders of a group supporting the project. "The casino would help the tax base by bringing more people to Gettysburg. I think it will get more attention," he said. "It's great that we honour the dead and fallen. We have a national shrine. But we have to get real - now it's time to think of the living and help them make a decent living."

Mr Gilbert and others say the proposed $300m (£170m) Crossroads Gaming Resort and Spa will be located at least one-and-a-half miles from the site of the battle, which raged over three days in July 1863. The project's CEO David LeVan said recently that it will create more than 900 permanent, full-time jobs.

But Susan Star Paddock, chairwoman of the No Casino Gettysburg group, told USA Today: "Gettysburg is the most well-known and most visited American battlefield. We would no longer be this authentic, historic small town. We would be a casino town."

The Civil War Preservation Trust, a non-profit group, is also opposed to the idea. It recently named Gettysburg one of the country's "most endangered" Civil War battlefields as a result of the proposal, saying it would "degrade the sacrifice made by so many on that field".

The proposed slot-machine casino - which would have no gaming tables - would be built just outside the town, in Straban Township. At the moment a golf driving range and a small house are on the site. "It's not on the battlefield. It will not be visible from the highest point of the battlefield. We believe the two can coexist," said Mr LeVan.

While Gettysburg attracts 1.8 million visitors a year some locals say the town needs to do more to persuade them to stay longer. Indeed, tourists can visit the highlights of the battlefield - such as Little Round Top, Peach Orchard and Seminary Ridge, location of the bloody and ill-fated Pickett's charge - for free. One can buy a self-guiding cassette or CD and drive around the battlefield without the need for a tour guide.

Mr Gilbert believes the battlefield and the casino will provide business for each other. "If this is a means of bringing in people, if it can bring jobs and help both sites, I think it will be a great thing," he said.

A 2004 Pennsylvania law authorised 14 licenses for slot-machine casinos in the state. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which will decide whether to grant a licence, says a decision will be issued by December.