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Jan 08, 2014 2:19pm
<p>Omerta on Stewart Avenue</p>

Omerta on Stewart Avenue

A bright red double-decker tour bus pulls out of the parking lot behind the Mob Museum on a blazing Friday afternoon. A woman in a tank top mops sweat from her forehead and marches up the stairs into the building, where she’s joined by a middle-aged man.

More families follow. They arrive in a steady trickle, twosomes and threesomes who wander across Stewart Avenue and disappear into the neoclassical building, a former courthouse. Business looks brisk. Lines aren’t snaking down the block or anything, but the parking lot is full and visitors are coming. The Mob Museum is livelier than the money room of the old Riviera.

It’s hard to get an accurate idea of how the museum’s attendance is doing with a random afternoon stakeout. Unfortunately, that might be the only way. The Mob Museum has thousands of exhibits in hundreds of glass cases, but not everything is up for public inspection. Its executives won’t release visitation numbers — at least not until sometime next year.

The Mob Museum, which opened on Valentine’s Day, crossed the six-month mark on Tuesday. Two spokespeople for the Mob Museum, who didn’t want to be quoted, said the museum wouldn’t release visitation figures until they publish their first annual report, which will happen sometime after their first anniversary.

But right now? No numbers. The museum wants to keep them under wraps. And that makes them look a lot more like the secretive subjects of their mob-themed exhibits than stewards of a publicly funded historical museum.

So what are they hiding? A representative of the museum provided two benchmarks in lieu of hard numbers. She said the museum passed the 100,000 mark in July and averages 650 visitors per day.

It doesn’t take a genius to plug that number into a calculator and come up with about 237,000 visitors by the end of the year, barring any major increases or decreases in mob interest.

That number is pretty good compared to other attractions like Springs Preserve and the Atomic Testing Museum. But it’s not even close to former Mayor Oscar Goodman’s delusional forecast of 600,000 to 800,000 visitors a year, which was used to justify the $42 million expenditure.

Executives at the Mob Museum set a much more modest target of 300,000 visitors right before the museum opened. They’re on track to get pretty close to that, especially if they can generate interest in an upcoming series of special events.

Of course, a monthly breakdown for the first six months could also show diminishing interest after a strong opening. But that’s pure conjecture, because we just don’t know what the numbers are. That’s unusual in the world of museums.

“Most museums are fairly transparent about the whole thing,” said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museum. “Nationwide, I think museums are not shy about visitation numbers.”

The museum received millions of dollars from the city and the redevelopment agency. After it was built, it became an independent nonprofit association. Spokesman Jace Radke said the city does not have any role in operating the museum.

The Mob Museum may be trying to avoid the fate of Springs Preserve, which cost $235 million to build and faced withering criticism after it attracted less than a third of its 600,000 projected visitors in the first year. As a result, the preserve had to use money from the Southern Nevada Water Authority to cover operating expenses.

The people at the Mob Museum didn’t want to discuss financial specifics, and whether they have any operating reserves to cover lean years. All of that will come out, they said, in the financial report.

Visitation numbers aren’t necessarily the best way to measure the financial health of a museum, Blanton said. Ticket sales account for less than 30 percent of the average museum’s income, he said.

Museums have had to diversify. One of the ways they’ve done that is by renting facilities to private groups. Local businesses including Wirtz Beverage and Hill International have rented the museum for company functions, a spokesman said.

The spokesman for the Mob Museum said the facility is waiting until the end of the year to release visitation numbers to create a better picture of its overall performance, instead of fixating on monthly fluctuations. So he couldn’t say whether the museum had more visits from tourists or locals, although he said people from all over the world had come through the doors.

The museum is developing a fall lecture series that should appeal to the local crowd. Jack Garcia, the FBI’s “Best Undercover Agent,” will speak in September, followed by Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU who studies international organized crime, and G. Robert Blakey, who wrote the RICO racketeering statute.

Will it work? That’s a good question. Just don’t expect any answers until February, or whenever the Mob Museum finally breaks its vow of silence.

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