- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2014


Let’s say you’re a former attorney for the mafia. You miss your glory years when you worked in Las Vegas, surrounded by mobsters, call girls and dirty money. You want to build a museum that celebrates the mob lifestyle, notorious gangsters and even has a display dedicated to your efforts to make sure that some of the most violent and notorious villains in American history managed to evade prison time. There’s just one problem: You don’t have the money.

So what do you do?

If you’re the mayor of a big city, you get taxpayers to pay for it.

That’s the scam that former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman pulled when he strong-armed taxpayers into funding his $42 million vanity project, the Mob Museum.

The Mob Museum, known officially as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, may be one of the poorest uses of taxpayers’ money in recent memory. Among the shocking and macabre items featured in the museum’s collection are the barber’s chair in which mob boss Albert Anastasia was shot dead and the blood-stained wall against which seven men were killed during Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

Mr. Goodman argued that the project was justified, even as construction costs ballooned from $30 million to $42 million. The mob lawyer-turned-politician claimed the Mob Museum would draw 800,000 paying customers a year, which would spur jobs and stimulate the economy.

That figure came from a study Mr. Goodman commissioned to calm public concern over the city’s plan to pour tens of millions of tax dollars into what was obviously a dopey idea — building a museum that glorified criminal behavior in a shady part of town during the middle of a recession.

The study’s numbers were wildly exaggerated, even bordering on bogus. Not that Mr. Goodman cared. The tax dollars kept rolling in, and that’s what mattered to him.

Federal taxpayers’ ponied up $2.7 million for the project — a $1.9 million handout from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a $532,043 “Save America’s Treasures” grant and a $250,000 subsidy from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Nevada state taxpayers chipped in another $87,000 from the State Historic Preservation Office and $14,882 from the Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs to finance the museum.

Local tax revenues funded the remaining $39 million or so needed to turn Mr. Goodman’s pet project into a ridiculous reality.

When, writing as a fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, I argued that Mr. Goodman’s attendance figures were completely ludicrous, he refused to defend his position. Instead, he launched into a spiteful and juvenile rant in which he called me a “moron,” an “idiot” and, oddly, a “monkey.”

Now, more than two years after the Mob Museum opened its doors, I’ve been proven right. In its best year, the museum lured a paltry 225,000 people through its doors a year — just 28 percent of the initial attendance projections. Even then, those humiliating attendance figures were made possible only through coupons, discounts, giveaways and cut-rate admission fees for locals.

Public records show that, in its first year, the museum’s operating expenses were so high, and its revenues were so low, an additional $1.6 million in government handouts were needed to keep the boondoggle afloat.

Mr. Goodman misused his might as a big-city mayor to force people across the country to bankroll a pork project that few will ever see and many would find offensive. Still, it’s the taxpayers, not Mr. Goodman, who now look like morons and idiots. We’re the ones having to foot the bill for his bad idea. Mr. Goodman still has the display about him in the museum he dreamed up and got the rest of us to fund.

The Mob Museum debacle also speaks to a larger problem. Local and state leaders trick taxpayers into ponying up outrageous sums based on baseless and absurd visitor projections and fabricated revenue estimates that they know are total malarkey. And they’re allowed to get away with it time and time again.

In order to justify forcing taxpayers to foot most of the bill for Charlotte’s $200 million NASCAR Hall of Fame, city leaders cited a report declaring the facility would draw 800,000 visitors a year — an absurd claim given that fewer than 300,000 people visit the Baseball Hall of Fame annually. Not surprisingly, visitor numbers are nowhere near the city’s preposterous projections.

This year, the Hall of Fame will be lucky to see 150,000 visitors. The anemic visitor numbers mean the shrine to stock car racing in drowning in debt, losing more than $1 million annually. Who pays to keep the Hall of Fame’s doors open? Taxpayers, of course. They are forced to bail out the boondoggle every single year.

Any time lawmakers who have an idea for a tourist trap come to taxpayers with their hands out, the numbers they provide as a justification for the project should be taken with a gargantuan grain of salt. Actually, they should be disregarded as bald-faced lies.

That’s because dozens of firms exist across America for the express purpose of formulating attendance, revenue and economic impact forecasts that can validate any claims politicians make about a project they want to build at the public’s expense, truth — and taxpayers — be damned.

When it comes to building tourist traps, taxpayers should just say “no.” If a project is actually a good idea, private entrepreneurs will put their money behind it. If government leaders need to rely on tax dollars to make a tourist attraction a reality, that’s all the evidence anyone should need to that the project is a losing proposition.

Drew Johnson is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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