Las Vegas mayor gambles on downtown renewal

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Sitting at a six-foot throne in his downtown Las Vegas office, Mayor Oscar Goodman looks like a fitting king of Sin City.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman waits to speak during the opening of the FBI building in Las Vegas, Nevada, August 14, 2007. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

His fondness for showgirls enhances that image as much as the personalized betting chips he hands out to visitors, but the mayor controls very little of a gaming Mecca crisscrossed by town and county boundaries.

More than 90 percent of the region’s visitors stay on the glittering Las Vegas Strip far from the earthier casinos and hotels in Goodman’s urban province.

Still, the former mob attorney carries himself as the regal head of Las Vegas while parlaying his flamboyance into a non-gambling renewal.

“I am trying to take us to a different level, to be one of the world’s great cities. To get there, you have to have the best of medicine, cultural experiences, the arts,” said the mayor, whose ruddy nose and wire-rim glasses are easily recognized by many of the city’s 600,000 residents.

Neighboring Clark County, home to the Las Vegas Strip, has more than 2 million residents and is headed by the relatively low-key Commissioner Rory Reid, son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

A centerpiece of Goodman’s vision is a brain research institute designed by Frank Gehry and being built on one corner of a huge lot with plans taking shape for an adjacent performing arts center, jewelry marketplace and upscale hotel.

“With the architect we have, we thought the project demanded a unique place,” said Maureen Peckman, who has helped direct the brain research project through a foundation called Keep Memory Alive. “The mayor wanted us to be part of the downtown rebirth.”


As he brings new features to the city, Goodman, 68, has tried to uphold the neon boast that Las Vegas is home to loose slot machines and quickie weddings.

Under one program, businesses can restore the gaudy signs of yesteryear with financial help from the city.

“I have been here 50 years and know that some things need to remain the same for a sense of history but other things need to be beautified,” said Charolette Richards, who has owned the Little White Wedding Chapel for nearly five decades.

With help from the rebate program, Richards is restoring signage that would be familiar to celebrity couples who exchanged vows at the Las Vegas landmark, including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as well as Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow.

While Goodman has promoted attractions that have a uniquely Las Vegas appeal, others hold personal poignancy like the organized crime museum planned for downtown.

Before he first became mayor in 1999, Goodman made his name representing noted mobsters like Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, accused by the FBI of committing at least 22 murders. After long avoiding jail, Spilotro was murdered in 1986.

When director Martin Scorsese took inspiration from Spilotro’s life in the gangster film “Casino,” Goodman played himself as a defense lawyer.


While Goodman has made some good bets for the city, others have so far been a bust. Despite years of trying, Goodman has not lured a major league baseball or football team to Las Vegas, which he says would bring new global stature.

His bid to host a basketball franchise is sputtering and also pits him against the powerful casinos of Clark County.

“I’ll succeed before we’re through,” he said of the effort to draw a basketball team. “No one competes with me.”

Despite that confidence, Goodman’s plan for a major downtown sports team faces long odds.

Last year, a major developer announced it would build an arena on the Las Vegas Strip comparable to venues that host top-notch indoor sporting events around the country.

Goodman said the joint venture announced between Harrah’s Entertainment, the world’s largest casino operator, and Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment company AEG may spark the city of Las Vegas to quickly build its own complex.

While Goodman calls his job “my hobby, my sabbatical and my retirement,” he has only three years left in his third and final term as mayor. Still, he won his last election with 84 percent of the vote and there are rumblings that he should be permitted to stay on.

“Is this it? There are some people who are saying ‘It’s mayor for life,”’ said Goodman. “I’m not advocating that but I got my throne here and I’d like to keep it.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan