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August 23, 2014

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DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS:

Mob museum walks on public tightrope

Planners find it’s not easy promoting high-profile project while keeping it serious

Image

Steve Marcus

A poster in a pedestrian walkway at Las Vegas City Hall chronicles the history of the old post office and federal courthouse building, left, the proposed site of the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, commonly called the “mob museum.”

The mob in Las Vegas

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Alan Feldman of MGM Mirage, who sits on the mob museum's board, says he and other project officials want to make sure it doesn't glorify the mob's past in Vegas.

Las Vegas’ proposed mob museum has taken some hits of its own in recent weeks, targeted on late-night talk shows and Capitol Hill as an absurd showcase for the likes of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro.

Museum backers say the critics don’t get it. This won’t be some sideshow exhibit celebrating the mob’s role as a storied part of Las Vegas’ past. Rather, it will offer a serious examination of organized crime and law enforcement’s efforts to combat it.

During this episode, the underlying message received by those planning the museum was clear: As they move forward, they need to be ever careful about the museum’s image.

“We want it to be serious and we want it to be balanced, but we need it to have appeal,” said Dale Erquiaga, a museum board member.

“It’s always on our minds as planners that we stay right on that line,” said Erquiaga, formerly an advertising strategist with R&R Partners. “It’s in every conversation we have.”

Most cities, it’s fair to say, would have cringed at the contemptuous national attention the mob museum received. Stand-up comedian Lewis Black said on “The Daily Show” on Jan. 14: “A mob museum? I thought Las Vegas already was a mob museum!”

And yet, the museum may have been aided by the dust-up, which Mayor Oscar Goodman and other museum proponents boasted likely resulted in more than $7 million worth of free publicity.

Several of the 13 board members of the 300 Stewart Avenue Corp., the nonprofit group working with the city on the project, likewise said in recent interviews that they are pleased with the museum’s progress, in terms of fundraising, collecting exhibits, and simply raising awareness of the museum’s mission.

A big part of that awareness-raising, as several board members pointed out, is making sure the public knows that the museum will be going out of its way not to glorify the Mafia.

“You have a very significant number of people in town who don’t want to glorify the mob. I count myself among them,” said board member Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Mirage.

“There isn’t a sympathizer, if you will, among us,” he said, including fellow board member Goodman, a former attorney who zealously defended several vicious local figures.

According to Feldman and other board members, the marketers for the museum are doing everything they can to straddle the line between avoiding the mob’s glorification and keeping the museum and its exhibits interesting and entertaining.

That struggle was reflected in a rough-draft museum brochure, which will be used to raise funds, garner exhibits or both, Feldman said.

On one page, the words “City Planner or Gangster?” were superimposed over a large black-and-white photo of mobster Bugsy Siegel. On another, “Tax Revenue or Skim?” is written over a photo of a spinning roulette wheel with gamblers in the background.

Feldman said that struggle was also reflected in the museum’s naming, which was finalized last spring at a meeting in City Hall.

After a long debate, consensus was reached on both a brand name — the mob museum — as well as the longer, more complete institutional name — The Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — which was to show that the museum’s purpose was equally to tell the story of the police and G-men who chased, and ultimately brought down, the mob.

“My motivation for volunteering on this project was to ensure that law enforcement, in particular the FBI, would be fairly and accurately represented,” said Ellen Knowlton, head of the 300 Stewart Avenue Corp., and the former special agent in charge of the local FBI field office, in a statement.

“I also wanted to make sure that the lifestyle of those involved with organized crime would be accurately depicted and not ‘glamorized.’ ”

Though Goodman said that he wanted as much federal stimulus money as he could get for the museum, plans for the project shouldn’t be altered if none is forthcoming, officials say.

According to city officials, the museum has raised about $15 million so far, including $3.6 million in federal grants and another $3.5 million in state and local grants.

The museum has a $50 million price tag. Ultimately, according to a museum fact sheet, that will include $7 million in grants and $8 million in city funds, with the remaining $35 million to come from bonds from the city’s redevelopment agency.

Construction on the interior of the city-owned museum building — the old three-story post office and federal courthouse building downtown — is set to kick off this spring. The city is hoping for an opening date of sometime in 2010.

Looking at some of the exhibits the museum has lined up, it’s difficult to say whether preventing the mob’s glorification will be something easily achieved.

At a charity auction in June at Christie’s in New York, a mob-museum-contracted designer spent $12,450 to purchase four artifacts from the blockbuster HBO series “The Sopranos.”

Included among the items was the black leather jacket, knit shirt and black slacks Tony Soprano wore in one of the series’ final episodes, “The Blue Comet.”

In the episode, actor James Gandolfini wore the outfit as he went to sleep clutching an AR-15 machine gun that his brother-in-law, Bobby, who had just been shot to death, gave him as a birthday present.

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