Graceland's massive $137 million expansion to open Thursday

Residents of Memphis' Whitehaven area  will watch Thursday as Elvis Presley Enterprises opens 200,000 square feet of new exhibits, museums and performance space behind Graceland Plaza, the longtime hub of mansion tours.

The opening of Elvis Presley's Memphis marks a milestone in efforts to revitalize Elvis' old neighborhood, the sprawling commercial strip and tree-lined subdivisions of Memphis' former southern suburb.

Mansion operators are nearing completion of a $137 million, master-planned overhaul of the Graceland campus, starting with last October's opening of 450-room resort hotel The Guest House at Graceland.

Next steps, once the new complex is humming along, include demolishing the early 1980s retail strip that has anchored Graceland ticket sales, shuttle buses, food service, souvenir sales and  supplementary exhibits like the Elvis automobile museum.

The plaza will be torn down and replaced by a park-like expanse of lawn, landscaping and trees, a pastoral gateway between the singer's mansion and the story of his life.

The people who run Graceland say they’re taking out Graceland Plaza because Elvis would have wanted it that way.

“He didn’t want a strip mall across the street from the mansion,” Graceland Holdings managing partner Joel Weinshanker explained during a preview of the entertainment complex last summer.

Ironically, new retail strips are considered a barometer of progress elsewhere on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Merchants and community leaders are seeing an economic uptick in the wake of Graceland’s big investment and a coming overhaul of Whitehaven’s main street.

Two new strips are leasing up, anchored by Domino's pizza and Cricket mobile communications, respectively; an 85-room Holiday Inn Express is under construction; and there are rumblings of other projects in the pipeline.

The wave of redevelopment comes as Graceland completes a two-step expansion that began with the $92 million hotel just north of Graceland mansion. Weinshanker will join Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley and Elvis Presley Enterprises president Jack Soden for the Elvis Presley's Memphis on the north side of Craft Road, west of Elvis Presley.

The wide world of Elvis includes Presley Motors, an automobile museum; Graceland Soundstage, a multipurpose performance and meeting space; pop culture exhibits including Mystery Train: The Sam Phillips Exhibit, the Elvis the Entertainer career museum and The Country Road to Rock; a 1950s-style diner and Memphis barbecue restaurant; and retail shops.

The economic impact of Graceland’s expansion has been estimated at more than $1.1 billion. While it’s unclear how much of that will be felt in Whitehaven, merchants and community leaders are optimistic.

“A lot of people in Memphis don’t understand what Graceland does for our community,” said Chuck Strong, who owns Piano’s Flowers and Gifts with his wife Barbara. “When you infuse a community with over 600,000 people a year, that has got to be a tremendous impact,” Strong said.

The Guest House is a game-changer for Whitehaven, creating a draw for business meetings and conventions and place for tourists to immerse themselves in all things Elvis for a few days to a week, Strong said. Elvis Presley's Memphis promises to ratchet up visitation to a new level.

“I honestly believe it’s not just a shot in the arm, it’s a whole new body,” Strong said.

Graceland’s expansion has been touted as the largest single investment in Whitehaven in many years.

A 2014 economic impact study by Younger Associates pegged the economic impact of The Guest House alone at $1.1 billion over 15 years.

Sharon Younger said her firm’s study was limited to The Guest House, but with Elvis Presley’s Memphis coming on line, “obviously it’s going to be bigger. There will be an impact because the total package is better. It will attract more visitors. The big economic impact is from visitors and visitor spending. You get a little bump from construction.”

John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis, said, “I agree this is a major investment in Whitehaven and may be one of the largest ever in that part of the city.  This area of the city certainly needs attention and will benefit from it if it is part of a much larger plan” that includes improvement of public safety, transportation and complementary tourism venues.

“The initial tax contribution will be just the beginning, but this legacy facility is an important community asset that cannot be overstated,” Gnuschke said. “The Elvis global footprint is enormous and greatly benefits Memphis.”

 “I hope this investment has a lasting impact on how the community addresses the needs of various areas of the city,” Gnuschke continued. “While the investment is just one part of solving the larger issues that face the area, it is an important start.  The public/private partnership is a model that can be useful in other areas around the city.”

City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson rattled off a list of improvements that have occurred since Graceland owners announced the expansion. Robinson represents businesses and neighborhoods on the east side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, and Councilman Edmund Ford represents the west side.

“We’ve already seen some changes,” Robinson said. “We have a new strip mall, used to be Easy Way. Now it’s a new strip mall with a Cricket store. Down on the other end, going toward Graceland, we have another strip mall with a Domino's. I’m also aware there’s a church on Elvis Presley that’s for sale, that has been approached by developers who would like to do another strip mall,” Robinson said.

“The whole complex is so important to the economic development of Whitehaven,” Robinson said.

At Pollard’s Bar-B-Q, owner Tarrance Pollard said he hasn’t noticed a spike in business from The Guest House, but he serves enough Graceland tourists to know it’s a draw for the neighborhood. Business has trended up in the six years since he moved to 4560 Elvis Presley from the airport area.

“It’s coming back,” Pollard said. “They’ve got different businesses coming back on the street, just a lot of little businesses.”

“I do have Elvis people come down here, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no different than what it’s been,” Pollard added. On the other hand, he has seen an influx of University of Memphis football fans. He has a Tony Pollard special on the menu and press clippings on the wall for his son, a standout Tiger running back.

With Graceland’s expansion in the books, merchants and leaders said they’ll stay focused on the next prize, a $43 million overhaul of three miles of Elvis Presley Boulevard from Interstate 55 to Shelby Drive.

The project, a collaboration of city and state governments, calls for new curbs, gutters, sidewalks, intersection improvements, lighting, bicycle lanes and relocation of utility poles away from the street’s edges.

Design and right-of-way acquisition are underway. Construction is expected to begin on Brooks to Winchester by the end of 2017, on the Winchester to Craft, which includes Graceland, in 2018, and the southernmost section, Craft to Shelby Drive, by mid 2019, city officials say.


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