After two attempts and another in the works, Adams County is still torn on proposed casino
By Ken Knox
David LeVan never set out to become a champion for the casino business, but over the last 12 years, his name has become somewhat synonymous with slot machines and poker tables. “It’s weird being known as ‘the casino guy,’ because I was never a big gambler,” he says. “My thing was always sports.” But, when a private investor approached him back in early 2005 with an idea to open a casino in the Gettysburg area, LeVan saw an opportunity that began a very long and arduous journey to realize his vision, one that still has yet to become reality.
“I thought it was a good idea,” LeVan recalls of the pitch made by the investor. “Not only was it a good idea for me as a businessman, but it was a good idea for the community as well, because it would bring some stability to the economic base with jobs and a rise in tax dollars. I know it sounds trite, but it’s good for the economic security of Adams County.”
Even so, LeVan was met with opposition almost from the get-go, and two previous attempts to bring a casino to town—first as a casino-hotel facility proposed for a piece of land next to the Gateway Gettysburg complex in 2002, then as a similar project that would have gone into what would have been a converted portion of the Gettysburg All-Star Expo Complex in 2010—have failed. Now, seven years after that second failed attempt, LeVan is once again poised to incite the debate over gambling in Adams County.
Having reconceptualized the project (dubbed Mason-Dixon Downs), LeVan went before the Freedom Township Board of Supervisors in February with a proposal for a new complex earmarked for 700 acres of land on Emmitsburg Road just one-half mile from its interchange with U.S. Route 15. The complex would include the casino and hotel and all their administrative offices, as well as a 7- to 8-mile-long race track that would accommodate 150 days of racing per year, as well as a grandstand area for spectators.
“Casinos in Pennsylvania continue to grow at a modest rate, but they are expanding and growing,” LeVan asserts, “and if you look at what the income generated through the local share assessment tax has done to build and improve roads and strengthen the fire and police and other emergency services in that area, I think it’s a pretty good model for what I would expect with Mason-Dixon Downs.”
Although exact figures were not yet available, LeVan says he is confident that the casino will be good for the economy in Adams County. “It’s still a work in progress, and we’re still having our experts doing market revenue analysis, so it’s too early to give you any figures on revenue,” he explains. “But, there is no question in my mind in terms of money that will be spent at local businesses in support of the track and casino, and what that money will do for some of my passions, including the arts, economic development, and capital projects.”
Meanwhile, LeVan says he expects the casino will bring in hundreds of jobs to the area, including, perhaps, the creation of a police department for Freedom Township, one of the few local municipalities without its own law enforcement team. “A project like this would fuel the township and the surrounding county to support those kinds of initiatives, but also give them the wherewithal to provide support to the arts and preservation in general,” he insists. “It’s a no-brainer.”
LeVan has asked the Freedom Township board to create an amendment to an ordinance that currently does not permit for a complex of that size, and he feels confident that he has addressed most of the concerns of those who opposed the casino the first two times around. “I feel like this time is different,” he says. “I’m more hopeful this time than I was the previous two times.”
What are the Odds?
If history is any indication, however, LeVan may be in for yet another fight. Indeed, there are certainly those who still oppose the casino’s creation.
“After the initial construction and opening fanfare, I do not think this development will ring long-term growth to the Adams County economy,” says Norma Calhoun, vice president of the Adams County Land Conservancy. “The [thriving casinos LeVan speaks of]are currently operating much closer to the large population centers in Maryland and Pennsylvania, so there would be no reason for people to travel here to gamble.”
Calhoun points to the failed Boyd’s Bear facility in Freedom Township as an example of a highly touted project that failed. “We were promised economic development, but the store closed within a few years, and it looms over Freedom Township as an incessant reminder of a project that was overpromised and under delivered,” she says. “The last thing this region needs is another failed development.”
Others oppose what they see as the morally questionable nature of casinos in general. “If I were talking to my children and was going to recommend activities for them, there’s no way I’m going to say, ‘Hey, I’d like for you kids to go out and gamble,’” says David Crowner, who in the past has been a member of Stand Straban, a group of citizens looking out for Straban Township’s historical properties. “If you walk up to a casino, would you find a sign over the door that says, ‘Come here to build character’? That’s not the kind of thing gambling does.” (For his part, LeVan says he believes a strict 21-and-over rule, as well as full-time state police presence and other security measures at the casino, would prevent minors from coming into the casino, and would also curtail any untoward behavior.)
Meanwhile, Adams County Commissioner Jim Martin has been vocal about his opposition, for not only religious reasons but also because, like Crowner, he believes that casinos lead people down a dangerous path. “The casino entices the public to the casino with the expectation of quick and sizable gains. After all, casino ads show everyone a winner, which is entirely false: Most everyone is a loser, and many leave the casino broke and short of funds for family needs,” says Martin. “My hope and prayer is that we can attract a sustainable manufacturing operation or large-scale national service, something with higher-level skills than those used for operating a gambling table,” Martin adds.
Others say they would more than welcome a casino. “I’m all for it,” says Tommy Gilbert, owner of Tommy Gilbert’s Hobby Shop and a proponent for the cause. “I think it’s far enough off the battlefield that I don’t think anybody can really crow about it, and we better start thinking of getting more commerce into Adams County. If we keep selling off businesses and land to trust and the park service, we’re not going to have a Gettysburg because somebody’s gotta pay this tax base. And, a casino would bring jobs, and it might even help keep our young people here, so I think it’s a good thing.”
When asked how he feels about any moral corruption gambling might introduce to the area, Gilbert scoffed, “It’s like TV: If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Plus, there are services for people who feel they are habitual gamblers and want to get out of it. People have to put on their big boy pants and govern themselves.”
At least one county official says he is waiting for more results to make up his mind. “As of today, no official plans have been forwarded to the County Planning Department for review,” says Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually, who has seen a copy of the informational packet that was submitted to Freedom Township. “Until I receive and thoroughly vet all of the credible information from both sides of this issue, I will withhold judgment on this new proposal.”
That said, Qually did add, “As in the past, I believe there will be strong economic evidence that this project will create jobs and economic benefit, but this must be weighed against all potential costs. There are always at least two sides to the story. We must engage in a civil, fact-based discussion, and I sincerely hope we continue to find ways to improve our community and provide fulfilling employment for our residents.”
Meanwhile, the man behind the 12-year crusade to bring the casino to town says he is keeping his chips down and remains hopeful that the third time is the charm. “I’m still just a passing gambler who puts gambling in the same category as I would sporting events and music events or some other form of entertainment, but I really hope the community can see the benefits this project would bring to the area,” he offers. “Look, I’m obviously not totally doing this out of the goodness of my heart. Obviously, there’s something in it for me. But, I think this would be a phenomenal opportunity for the economic development and all the other things that a vibrant community thrives on. And, I think Adams County could use some vibrancy.”