Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of Mob Museum
300 Stewart Ave, Las Vegas
A year ago, a day after a spectacular Valentine’s Day grand opening celebration that featured 1930s-era gangsters, flappers and the happiest former mayor in the universe, Jonathan Ullman and the staff of the Mob Museum arrived at work to confront a stark reality.
After years of planning and millions spent renovating the historic former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office into a grand museum, the pressure was on to turn the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement into a lasting institution in downtown Las Vegas — a tall order in a town where the latest attractions often have a short shelf life.
Now a year later, Ullman, the Mob Museum’s executive director, is quick to qualify the endeavor as a success, even if it is still a work in progress.
The museum drew about 225,000 visitors since opening on Valentine’s Day 2012, about one third of whom were locals, Ullman said. Although the total is lower than the 300,000 visitors Mayor Carolyn Goodman optimistically projected when the museum opened, it was still enough to help put the nonprofit organization into the black for the year.
“We’re very proud at what’s been accomplished in the first year at the Mob Museum,” Goodman said Wednesday.
With the opening of Downtown Grand on the horizon and Zappos headquarters relocating downtown at the end of the year, Goodman said she thought the area along Stewart Avenue near Third Street would continue to develop and boost the fortunes of the Mob Museum.
“I think what’s most important is that it’s unique. It’s our history. People are fascinated by how Bugsy Siegel and others from that era put us on the map,” Goodman said. “(The museum) is a remarkable undertaking and it’s only going to get stronger and better.”
Ullman sees the museum, which documents the historical and ongoing battles between law enforcement and organized crime across three floors of interactive exhibits, as downtown’s largest startup. Many of the early months after opening were spent building the organization and learning how visitors interacted with the exhibits, he said.
“We were hiring people who were coming into jobs that have never been occupied before. They’re defining their roles and learning how to work together,” Ullman said. “(We dealt with) employment policies, benefits, the office environment, all of that stuff. How do we market the product? It was a tremendous learning experience.”
The first year is crucial in establishing a museum for future success, but many struggle to attract visitors after the initial newness wears off, said Darcie Fohrman, a California-based museum consultant.
“The first year is crucial. You sort of set the tone, like when you first meet a person. It can make you or break you,” Fohrman said. “In the case of the Mob Museum, if they maintain the quality that they’ve established and they do the PR that’s necessary to keep their name out there nationally and internationally, because of tourism they should be fine. The hard thing is to get locals to come back more than once. In order to do that they would need to have really active programming and keep changing exhibits.”
Renovating the courthouse and building the museum cost $42 million. Funding came through a combination of federal, state and local grants.
After opening, tweaks were made throughout the exhibits to captions, audio and lighting. The staff adopted simple lessons they picked up along the way — including learning that putting “Las Vegas” on Mob Museum-branded merchandise increased sales.
Now that they’ve settled in, Ullman said the staff was working to expand the museum’s non-exhibit offerings, like its speaker series and educational programming while hosting more special events.
“How do we make the experience more dynamic? How do we give people a reason to sign up and become a member and come multiple times and not simply to see the same exhibits over and over again,” he said.
The museum is still adding to its collection of artifacts and has dedicated space on its third floor to host rotating exhibits to keep the experience fresh for visitors, he said.
The museum’s anniversary celebration has spanned the past week and included a blood drive Saturday and a fundraiser Wednesday with Flightlinez on the Fremont Street Experience. On Valentine’s Day, the museum is giving away 1,000 commemorative pins and hosting a special photo-op in the photo lineup exhibit where guests can hold Valentine’s-themed booking tags bearing slogans like “It’s Complicated.”
So far, the museum seems to be a hit with tourists and locals alike, dozens of whom filled the museum shortly after it opened on a recent weekday morning.
“It’s cool, very interesting,” said Pete Hall, a Las Vegas resident who was visiting with his wife and friends. “I can see how you could spend two days looking around here.”
Louisiana natives Jim and Kary Randall have vacationed in Las Vegas multiple times, they said, but during this trip they decided to get away from the Strip and check out the Mob Museum, which had been recommended to them by friends.
“Being from Louisiana, we’re big into New Orleans, which has a lot of mob history,” Jim Randall said. “I really like (the museum). It’s crazy there’s still so much memorabilia around from that time period.”