Privately funded Mob Attraction competes against city-backed Mob Museum

Attraction emerges from bankruptcy while Museum enjoys taxpayer-funded advantages

LAS VEGAS — The Mob Museum and Mob Attraction, two organized-crime-themed properties that opened within a year of each other in Las Vegas, have a respectful business competition.

But is it a fair competition?

The Mob Attraction, located in the Tropicana Resort on the Strip, is a privately developed, for-profit exhibition that allows visitors to interact and become “initiated” into the mob.

The Mob Museum, on the other hand, is located in downtown Las Vegas, showcases the mob’s history with the assistance of $42 million in taxpayer subsidies and a tax-exempt nonprofit status — giving it government-granted advantages that its private competitor lacks.

“We try not to look at it as a major competition, since we’re an entertainment venue and they’re a museum, but there are certain aspects where they’ve gotten a step ahead because of the city,” said Spence Johnston, public relations director for the Mob Attraction.

The Mob Museum has been in development since 2002, championed by then-mayor and former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman. It finally opened this February in the old downtown post office building. Goodman boldly claimed he expected 800,000 people to visit the museum in its first year.

The Museum doesn’t release specific attendance figures, according to Jonathan Ullman, the Museum’s executive director. He did say, however, that the Museum had its 50,000th visitor in April.

At that pace, the Museum would host no more than 300,000 visitors — its own official prediction — by the end of the year, far below Goodman’s forecast.

“Sometimes people look at the bottom line figure and then they have a visceral reaction,” said Ullman, “which is understandable, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s not as if you could simply take these [Mob Museum] dollars and then turn them into more teachers or firefighters.”

In February, however, Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison identified multiple streams of taxpayer dollars, including general-fund monies, used to build Goodman’s monument to the Mob era.

Its competitor, the Mob Attraction at the Tropicana, originally opened in 2011 under the name “The Mob Experience.” The exhibit suffered from poor management and legal challenges brought by former executives, and filed for bankruptcy in October 2011.

After emerging from bankruptcy in February 2012, the exhibit renamed itself “The Mob Attraction.” Johnston says the bankruptcy process allowed the company to rebrand itself to meet customer demand, and that the Attraction receives between 300 and 400 visitors per day.

“Things have been steadily increasing and doing real well since the new ownership came in,” Johnston said. “No company wants to go into bankruptcy, especially the way we did, but sometimes that’s how the business environment works, and you try to rebuild and come back.”

While the Mob Attraction rebranded itself, the Mob Museum benefited from the publicity offered by Goodman, both during his tenure as mayor and in his post-mayoral career. Goodman called the Mob Museum “his baby” during his mayoral tenure, sits on the Museum’s Board of Directors, and has an entire exhibit within the Museum dedicated to his time as a mob lawyer.

Ullman defended Goodman and the city’s involvement with the Museum, saying it was “appropriate” for the city to support the Museum since the Museum was intended as an “educational facility.”

“This is not glorifying the mob. This is a place intended to highlight an aspect of the city’s history that also appeals to visitors from around the world,” Ullman said.

“We host school groups and guest speakers, so our goal is to educate visitors and provide them with information not just on the mob’s history in Vegas, but on the mob’s history throughout the country.”

Drew Johnson, co-founder of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, a Washington, D.C-based watchdog group, wrote a commentary noting that, unlike a privately funded business such as the Mob Attraction, if the Mob Museum fails, taxpayers will face financial shakedowns from government tax collectors.

“If the museum fails to generate enough revenue to pay for operating expenses,” Johnson wrote, “tax dollars will almost certainly be used to bail the museum out time and time again.”

Kyle Gillis is a reporter for Nevada Journal, a publication of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more in-depth reporting, visit http://nevadajournal.com/ and http://npri.org/.

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