by Tim O'Reiley
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- After talking, planning and collecting since 1996, the Neon Museum finally has an opening date.
Although the site is still in construction disarray, the collection is expected to be open to the public on Oct. 27, after its keepers finish converting the lobby of the old La Concha motel into a visitor center and shop and rearranging the adjacent Neon boneyard for foot tours. The museum has generated revenue for a couple of years by taking visitors who pay $15 each through the 2-acre boneyard, the final resting place for more than 150 signs spanning seven decades. Now museum leaders hope to substantially boost ticket sales and add other income streams.
"Part of the lure is that people are looking for the Old Vegas experience," said William Marion, chairman of the board of trustees of the nonprofit Neon Museum. "This is a unique way to show it to people."
The La Concha embodies the era before the Strip become dominated by large corporations and video walls, with its distinctive clamshell shape dating back to 1961. It originally stood next to the Riviera before being moved six years ago.
The museum board has set a first-year operating budget of $1 million and expects to at least break even at 150,000 visitors. Tickets, at $18 for adults and $12 for seniors, students, locals and veterans, would account for the largest portion of revenues. Souvenir sales and rental for photo shoots or receptions would also chip in.
With its Las Vegas Boulevard North location, next to the Cashman Center and separated from Fremont Street by a half-mile of nondescript commercial buildings and U.S. Highway 95, the museum stands well away from the typical tourist trail.
But museum leaders expect downtown revival will help attract people, as will teasers that have been installed in the form of 16 restored signs on or adjacent to Fremont Street.
"We have bits of the Neon Museum spread like bread crumbs leading here," said project architect Patrick Klenk, president of Westar Architects. "It's not as if the museum is sitting out here in isolation. It has tentacles reaching into the community."
Through word-of-mouth advertising and a website, the boneyard tours now typically draw about 80 to 100 people a day, said Marion, managing partner of the Purdue Marion & Associates public relations firm. Limited capacity forces the museum to turn away about 20 people a day, he said.
A more aggressive marketing push will follow the opening in the attempt to more than triple visitor counts to the about 400 a day during full operations, Marion said.
The museum had to raise $2.8 million to bring its plans to life, Marion said. About $500,000 came from private donations and the rest from a buffet of local, state and federal sources. Of that total, $600,000 was dedicated to the 2005 effort to rescue the La Concha from demolition and move it. About $300,000 for the move came from private contributions; the rest from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The museum's tax return for the year ended June 30, 2011, showed $812,000 in revenues, with $280,000 coming from tours or photo shoot fees. The return also lists no debt. The cash reserve, not needed to cover construction, now tops $400,000, Marion said.
In an unusual twist, the public will be allowed in every day except Sunday, which will be reserved for photo shoots. Typically, museums go dark on Mondays or Tuesdays, but Neon Museum director Debi Puccinelli said the experience to date with tours shows strong demand on Tuesdays and much less interest on Sundays.
Much of the collection was donated by the sign companies that have lit up Las Vegas for decades, Marion said. Many of the companies leased the signs to the casinos, then kept them in a boneyard for spare parts after they were replaced.
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