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August 29, 2014

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Downtown museum to tell story of mob in Las Vegas, elsewhere

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Dave Toplikar

Three new exhibits were unveiled today for the Mob Museum, which is expected to open in the spring of 2011 at the former federal post office and courthouse in downtown Las Vegas. From left, Mayor Oscar Goodman, Nancy Deaner, the city’s manager of cultural affairs, and Dennis Barrie, the museum’s creative director, take questions at a press conference at City Hall.

Mob Museum renderings

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Dennis Barrie, creative director of the new Mob Museum, talks to reporters this morning at Las Vegas City Hall about three new exhibits that are being designed for the museum, which will have a spring opening in 2011 at the former federal post office/courthouse at 300 Stewart Avenue. Mayor Oscar Goodman, left, said the museum could bring as many as 600,000 to 800,000 visitors a year to the downtown.

Mob Museum location

When the Mob Museum opens next year in downtown Las Vegas, visitors will see much more than what occurred in Las Vegas from the 1940s through the 1980s, according to the future downtown museum's creative director.

"I think you're all going to be very surprised about the content of this museum," says Dennis Barrie, best known as the co-creator of the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

"This museum is engaging and exciting and entertaining, but it also has a serious story to tell," Barrie told reporters during a press conference Thursday morning.

As part of Mayor Oscar Goodman's weekly press conference at City Hall, Barrie showed slides of the designs of three key exhibits that will be in the $42 million Mob Museum, which is officially known as the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime Enforcement:

• The "Mob Mayhem" exhibit, which is designed to show how violence was part of the way of life in organized crime. The bullet-ridden wall from the Chicago St. Valentine's Day Massacre is the centerpiece of that exhibit.

• "The Skim" exhibit, which explains how illegal skimming of profits from a casino’s earnings was a common practice in Las Vegas for decades.

• The "Bringing Down the Mob" exhibit, which deals with federal wiretapping, considered to be one of the most important tools used by law enforcement and prosectors starting in the late 1960s.

"This is one of the most anticipated museum projects in the country," Barrie said. "... It is really a museum topic that invokes true interest in the American public, in museum people and all sorts of people."

Barrie said those working on the project are the best exhibit designers in the country and have worked on projects included at the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and major museums around the world.

"This museum is about the history of Las Vegas, but it's even greater than that, it's about the history of America, because organized crime and the fight against organized crime has been with us since we began as a nation," Barrie said.

The museum is being cast not only as a study of how organized crime operated in Las Vegas, but also includes the history of organized crime from the Prohibition era to how it operates today along the Mexican border or with the Russian mob, he said.

Nancy Deaner, the city's manager of cultural affairs, said the 41,000-square-foot museum would open in the spring or summer of 2011. The exhibit space encompasses 16,400 square feet, she said.

Goodman, a former mob lawyer who said the museum was "near and dear to my heart," said discussions about such a museum have been going on since about 2002.

At that time, they began talking about the city acquiring the old post office/federal courthouse near city hall at 300 Stewart Ave., where he said he tried his first case on Valentine's Day in 1966.

The city was able to obtain the building for $1 from the federal General Services Administration, which considered the building surplus. The city was given the requirement that the project would have to be acceptable to the GSA not only architecturally, but in terms of its exhibits, he said.

Goodman said various movies and TV shows have helped to make the public aware of the story of Las Vegas's connection to the mob and to law enforcement efforts to eradicate it from the city.

"We thought the project made a lot of sense after surveys showed it just hit the mark," he said.

Goodman said his initial estimates were that it would attract about 250,000 visitors a year, but since that time studies have show it could attract 600,000 to 800,000 annually.

"If that's the case, it's going to be a very big money maker for Las Vegas," Goodman said. "But more important than that, it will embody our history in large part and will be very educational."

Barrie said the admission price would be in the range of $15 to $20. Goodman said the challenge will be in dealing with the crowds expected at the museum each day.

Goodman said the museum's board met Wednesday and "we've reached a point now where we're going full speed."

The exhibits are being fully developed, the inside corridors and rooms are being finished and all of the original building has been restored, he said.

"It's exciting to have this in our community because it's going to be a real catalyst to downtown visitation," he said.

As an aside, Goodman said the CIM Group, owners of the Lady Luck Hotel and Casino, 206 N. Third St., which is undergoing a $100 million renovation, soon plan to come to the city council with a project to upgrade the closed facility into a world-class hotel "with a major brand associated with it."

Their plans also include building a retail complex along Third Street, he said.

"That's going to be a very exciting spot," Goodman said. "And it's going to be symbiotic as to bringing people down to the museum."

He declined to name the hotel operator who would run it.

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