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George Knapp: Mob Museum critics, go whack yourselves

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

Had the city of Las Vegas chosen to hand out millions of dollars to, say, a pharmaceutical company or a gold mining conglomerate, an agri-biz giant or a filthy-rich dotcom gazillionaire, I doubt we would have heard a peep out of the usual chorus of anti-government penny-pinchers. The way they see it, government can give a helping hand to developers or casinos, no problemo. It can subsidize nuclear power plants or privacy-stripping spyware tech or genetically modified Frankenfood, and the professional skinflints wouldn’t say a word.

But spending public money on something that might benefit actual members of the public is viewed as a crime against humanity, an outrage that generates howls of fiscal anguish and caterwauls louder than Granny Clampett with her fingers in a garbage disposal. Here we are, a full year after the city invested $42 million in local and federal funds to create the aptly nicknamed Mob Museum, and the exact same bunch of handwringers, chattermonkeys and full-time, certified nitpickers are still pitching a bitch.

And get this. Here’s their big argument, the line that they think wins the day for their side: Oscar Goodman was wrong when he predicted the museum would draw 800,000 people in its first year.

Really? So, if I’ve got this straight, they’re arguing that the former mayor was exaggerating by a lot, that he invoked a bit of hyperbole while promoting the museum, that he stretched the truth. Holy shit, stop the presses. Call out the national guard. Get me the Kremlin on the hotline. Oscar exaggerated? Are we talking about the same Oscar? And are we to assume that maybe he was likewise exaggerating when he talked about having people whacked? That Oscar?

If that’s the best the nitpickers can do, then it must really frost their shriveled little gonads to know that the museum is a flat-out success, no matter how you look at it.

First, it is already operating in the black. It drew more than 225,000 visitors, which means it ranks among the most successful museums in the country for its size and operating budget. (The median number of visitors for a comparable museum budget is 127,000 per year.) It is already strong enough to begin paying back the seed money that started the ball rolling. Maybe the critics haven’t heard, but Las Vegas is just now emerging from the deepest, darkest economic hole in our town’s history. Businesses crashed, tourism took a nosedive, tens of thousands of jobs vanished and thousands of people lost their homes, and yet the Mob Museum still thrived.

Second, it gave a huge shot in the arm to the downtown area. Most of the people who visited the museum weren’t staying downtown, but the museum was enough of a draw to get them leave the Strip for downtown. Bars and restaurants and shops benefitted. Many of them extended their hours of operation, hired extra help because the museum got people to show up. It also generated an astonishing amount of free publicity — more than $40 million worth-— nearly all of it positive. Travel magazines have been effusive in their praise. TV shows can’t get enough of the place. News crews from all over the world featured the museum in their stories. The museum has already won its share of national awards, too. This is a bad thing?

Third — and this is the one that really must cause nitpicker sphincters to pucker — is that people love the place. Regular people, visitors and locals alike, love it. A whopping 96 percent of the people who’ve toured the museum rank it as good or excellent. It is a world-class facility run by people who know what they are doing. They’re adding new interactive features and started a speaker’s program, which has brought nationally known experts on law enforcement and organized crime into the fold, which strongly suggests it can continue as a major attraction for decades to come.

What’s more, there is every indication that it will only get better. Major investments in downtown are just now starting to bear fruit. Hotels have remodeled. Fremont Street East is a blazing inferno of entrepreneurial spirit. Our town is finally crawling out of the hole, and all of that means better times and more visitors for the museum.

“We are already self-sustaining,” museum executive director Jonathan Ullman told me. “We’ve started to pay back the city for its investment, and with all of the economic activity under way downtown, we expect our visitor numbers to rise. We feel really good about what we’ve done and where’s we’re heading.”

There are other intangibles that are every bit as legitimate and important as the numbers and scratches on an accountant’s ledger. The historic building in which the museum is housed has been saved, not merely to gather dust but as a living, vibrant entity. There are some who think the only legitimate expenditure for government is handing out tax breaks to mega-rich bigshots or to slash-and-burn conglomerates, that government is somehow here to serve corporations, not the other way around.

This is a public project that is actually for the public. People like it. They get it because, dare I say it, it’s fun. Public dollars can and should be spent on things that enrich our lives in ways that may not register on a balance sheet. Museums, art, history, education and culture make this a better world. To paraphrase my friend and fellow journalist Steve Sebelius, these are the things that contribute to what we call civilization.

A year from now, around Valentine’s Day, the very same groaners will once again bemoan the original expenditure. Maybe they will be tempted to guzzle a bucket of hemlock, depressed that the $42 million didn’t go to a fat-cat defense contractor or frack-happy oil company or rape-and-pillage Wall Street investment bank.

But by then, the Mob Museum will have finished its second successful year of operation and the skinflints will have to find a new nit to pick.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at gknapp@klastv.com.