07/11/2012 08:02 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2012

Jonathan Ullman Loves Las Vegas

Jonathan Ullman is Executive Director of Las Vegas's new Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. Prior to joining The Mob Museum, Jonathan served as the president and COO at the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Before that, he worked at the Liberty Science Center, where he was intimately involved in operationalizing the Center upon its opening in 1993.


Las Vegas,

Your glitter was always captivating from afar but, truth be told, I thought of you more as a fun date than as a potential long term partner. Forgive me. I could not have been more mistaken.

Love is a strong word and I don't like to toss it around. However, I am surely not the only one to fall fast and hard for your magic, exemplified by magnificent architecture, which replicates many of the globe's greatest cities. While this beauty may only be skin deep, it is sublime. On the surface, much of Las Vegas seems better than its original inspiration.

Ask the United States Postal Service which Lady Liberty they prefer.

But to really know Las Vegas, you have to explore its many sides. It is this richness and complexity that began to seduce me the moment I arrived to head up The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

Most people are familiar with Las Vegas' most provocative side: The Strip. Here, an annual tidal wave of nearly 40 million tourists brings with it a massive and relentless energy. Seventeen of the twenty-five largest hotels in the world are on a four-mile path, replete with the finest shopping and dining, exquisite atmosphere and headline entertainment - whatever your pleasure, from Celine to Snooki. On the Strip, you cannot help but feel constantly in the midst of the action, with endless possibilities on any given night.

Yet if the Strip is the port of call, downtown Las Vegas is where we find the local treasures. Here, the authenticity of Fremont Street reminds us of "old Vegas," a bygone era that marked the explosion of growth for what became the largest American city born in the 20th century. While the modern Strip overwhelms with splendor and extravagance, it leaves little for the imagination - but not so downtown. Properties such as the Golden Nugget and El Cortez are steeped in history, charm and intimacy. In the warm glow of neon, our pace begins to soften. Now we are really getting to know each other.

But to truly love a city, our affection cannot be limited to the nights out on the town. Rather, it is the daily grind that tests the depths of our relationship. Working in today's downtown Las Vegas, you cannot help but feel as though something amazing is coming, a tipping point, perhaps. In the face of the nation's economic downturn, this is a city that refused to blink. When courageous and visionary leadership in city government is coupled with tenacious and entrepreneurial citizenry, the results can be extraordinary.

The opening of the Mob Museum in February was part of a big moment culturally and followed closely by the opening of The Smith Center, a major performing arts facility. The Neon Museum also opened its illuminated doors. By the fall, the Lied Discovery Children's Museum will burst on the scene. Any one of these organizations alone would be a fantastic new resource. Together, they will reshape the identity of the city, and foster a renewed sense of pride and engagement within the community.

But this renaissance is occurring more organically, too. One after another, casino properties are undergoing major renovations. A burgeoning arts district takes to the streets on the first Friday night of each month, a recurring celebration with thousands of participants. On Fremont East, the establishments have such unique character that those watching closely are certain it will eventually become "the must visit destination" for out of town party-goers. New housing opportunities are no less creative. At So-Ho Lofts, I can live in convenience and style, and enjoy amenities such as a delectable grocery store that has a deejay inside laying tracks.

Such personality.

While the places are so important, the people provide the true foundation of this remarkable city. Even with 1.8 million total residents, Las Vegas always seems to have a casual, small town feel. Perhaps it is because the city is so young, or because this was once the "wild west." Or, maybe it just gets too hot - when the ties come off, everyone seems to lose a bit of pretense. Whatever the reason, people interact in a way that belies the city's size.

Go out to lunch, you may bump into the Mayor who is quick to chat. Grab a cup of coffee at The Beat, and enjoy a chance encounter with the CEO of Zappos. With 3800 hours of sunshine annually, people simply can't suppress their neighborly good cheer.

And still, Las Vegas never fails to surprise. Who would have thought it would be so family friendly, boasting some of the best master planned communities and public parks in the country? Or, who knew that a twenty minute drive is all it takes to escape to absolute seclusion and natural wonders, in places like Red Rock Canyon National Park?

Las Vegas' has a legacy as an open city that has pushed the boundaries of societal norms. For a museum guy from the east coast, this is all quite fascinating -- especially so now that I am a "Mob Museum guy." The city is still full of real life accountings of life with mobsters, people who hung with members of organized crime, and those who were part of the law enforcement effort that ultimately prevailed.

What other city could have a wildly popular and highly respected Mayor - three terms and 85% electorate support - who was once the go-to attorney for the Mob, defending individuals such as Meyer Lansky, Anthony Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal? Just like The Mob Museum, Las Vegas is full of tales so intriguing they need no embellishment. The Museum tells both sides of a story as it has never been told before. Spawning some of the world's best movies, books and screenplays, we seem to have an unquenchable thirst to see more. Where else would be a better fit, than within the most alluring city in the world.

So be gentle with me, Las Vegas. I think this is beginning to get serious.

Jonathan Ullman