Monday, Sept. 25, 2006 | 7:15 a.m.
Whether the new museum at the old Post Office and federal courthouse site on Stewart Street will be a tribute to groundbreakers or leg-breakers depends on whom you ask.
The project is commonly referred to as the "Mob Museum," because Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman wants it to focus on the organized crime figures who helped turn the city into a gambling mecca.
Goodman, a former mob lawyer, represented guys who could be featured prominently in the museum, including Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, who allegedly made his bones in the mob through a gruesome murder.
He is said to have put another mobster's head in a vise and turned it until the man's eye popped out. The scene, and Spilotro, were immortalized by Joe Pesci in the movie "Casino."
Goodman, in fact, credits that movie with helping open his eyes about the mob.
As a former lawyer for organized crime figures, he often denied the mob's existence while defending his clients. He now says the movie, in which Goodman played himself, and information he heard on a wiretap convinced him that there may indeed be a mob.
Goodman makes no apologies for his affiliation with organized crime figures, and credits the mob with making him a rich man.
He says that does not mean the museum would glorify mobsters or try to put a positive spin on their brutal acts: "I just want the truth depicted about that very colorful era. I don't want them portrayed as anything other than what they were."
Goodman tried his first case in the federal courthouse and would almost certainly be featured prominently in a museum that focuses on the mob.
Some Las Vegas historians think limiting the focus of the museum to mob figures would shortchange visitors. They prefer a broader perspective that focuses on the entire history of Las Vegas.
"The goal and the need are to create a museum that will appeal to both locals and visitors alike," says Michael Green, a professor at the Community College of Southern Nevada and a board member for the project.
Green agrees that any such museum would have to include organized crime figures, but he says that it should also include other historical Las Vegans, such as legendary Mayor Ernie Cragin and the Foleys, Roger T. and his son Roger D., both of whom were judges.
Green says that the museum could also correct some of the inaccuracies that legend and movies such as "Bugsy" have fostered over time.
"If you watch that movie, you'd think Bugsy Siegel founded Las Vegas, and we know that's not true," Green says.
Mike Radice, a museum consultant from Hartford, Conn., thinks the mob angle might allow this project to succeed where other heritage museums have not .
"A museum needs to be something that people want, and it needs to tie into the community," Radice says. "The mob is certainly that."
Radice has seen the highs and lows in working with museum promotion.
He has been involved with the successful Skyscraper Museum and the failed Broadway Theater Museum, both in New York City.
Cities such as New York and Las Vegas, which have a wealth of entertainment options, are especially challenging for museum developers, he says.
Not having a reputation as a museum city might also be a hindrance here, Radice says: "People who come to Las Vegas are there to gamble, and it might be a tough sell to get them to take time out to go to a museum."
Still, he says, there is no magic formula to predicting the success or failure of a museum.
A strong historical focus can create a natural bridge to the school system that can help fuel the success of a museum, Radice says, but there is no guarantee. He points to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati as a project steeped in history that has never caught on and now faces serious financial problems.
On the other hand, a museum based on a cultural phenomenon, with less educational value, can be enormously successful. Radice cites Graceland, the Memphis, Tenn., mansion where Elvis Presley lived and died, as an example.
"You have to find something that connects with people and then sustain that connection," he says.
Goodman's vision will apparently rely more on the cultural connection.
Although the mayor says that he would welcome participation from the schools, he sees this as more of a "grown-up" attraction.
A final decision on the museum's focus is still forthcoming, but Goodman has been pushing hard for the mob angle. And his popularity with the public and powers of persuasion might allow him to present his detractors with an offer they can't refuse.
Last month, the council approved a project contract for architectural and associated services of up to $7.5 million from the Parks and Leisure Activities Capital Projects Fund.
Goodman says that the city would fund the remainder of the estimated $30 million project with bonds.
The city has enlisted planners with a proven track record to get the project under way.
Dennis Barrie of Westlake Reed Leskosky is the creative director of museum planning. His previous projects include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Gallagher and Associates, with such projects as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to its credit, will oversee exhibit development and design.
The museum is scheduled for completion in early 2008.