LAS VEGAS — The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, also known as the Mob Museum, fell well short of its original 300,000-to-600,000 visitor projection, but did meet revised attendance projections with over 250,000 visitors in its first year of operations. It fell dramatically short of former mayor Oscar Goodman’s optimistic 800,000 projection.
“They tell me not to say that I believe 800,000 people will be down here, that I’m only supposed to say 500,000 or 400-to-800,000 people will be here,” said Goodman during last year’s grand opening.
The museum, which received $42 million in tax money from various local and federal funds, has a $3.5 million operating budget, according to Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s executive director. The average ticket price is $14.96, so 250,000 visitors allows the museum to make and surpass its breakeven target.
Attendance projections were lowered several times following the museum’s opening, with city and museum officials citing the economy as the reason for the revisions. Mayor Carolyn Goodman, a featured speaker at last year’s grand opening, told Nevada Journal via email that she was “extremely” happy with the museum’s first-year performance:
“I’m extremely pleased with the Mob Museum becoming a must-see attraction downtown. More than 200,000 visitors came downtown to experience an authentic, historically accurate, interactive and entertaining exhibit. Word of mouth and reviews for the museum are fantastic, and I expect it will become even more popular once the Downtown Grand opens, Zappos fully moves into the old City Hall building and we see more development in the area.”
David Williams, president of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, a nationally oriented watchdog group based in Virginia, doesn’t think barely breaking even is enough to justify the hefty taxpayer investment.
“One year later it is clear that promises of large crowds were just wishful thinking rather than any estimate based in reality,” Williams said in a statement. “The Mob Museum should be a warning sign to all future taxpayer-funded tourist traps.”
Last year, the TPA included the Mob Museum in its “Top Five Tourist Traps,” a report listing several taxpayer-funded tourist stops across the country. The TPA joined the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the free-market think tank that publishes Nevada Journal, in calling attention at last year’s grand opening to the taxpayer funding.
“Las Vegas residents and visitors are on the hook for the lion’s share of the museum’s cost, but $2.7 million in federal handouts means that all American taxpayers are forced to pick up part of the tab — even if they never step foot inside,” Drew Johnson, a senior fellow at TPA, wrote in a Las Vegas Review-Journal column.
In an interview with Nevada Journal last summer, Ullman defended the museum’s public funding by saying two-thirds of the museum’s funds had to go to the rehabilitation of the old downtown post office building, where the museum is located, whether or not the museum was built.
“Sometimes people look at the bottom-line figure, and then they have a visceral reaction, which is understandable,” said Ullman. “But if you go in and you dig a little deeper, you’d see that you can’t take these dollars and turn them into more teachers or firefighters or other types of things that people may want.”
Ceres Hill, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations, highlighted the operation’s local impact by noting that it hosted over 40 different events during the year, ranging from corporate events to community events. The museum also hosted over 1,100 students on local field trips.
Additionally, asserted the museum’s press release commemorating the anniversary, the museum’s presence has generated spending of over $2.5 million within the community.
Planning for the museum was sparked by Oscar Goodman, during his tenure as mayor. Goodman, a former mob lawyer who is featured in the museum, originally requested that $55 million be “earmarked” in the 2009 Recovery Act for the museum’s construction, but the request wasn’t honored.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, while defending the idea of the museum itself, said the stimulus bill would have no earmarks. Other Washington lawmakers called the federal money Reid promised for the museum a prime example of pork spending.
Oscar Goodman, who last year referred to the museum’s critics as “idiots” and “monkeys,” couldn’t be reached for comment.