For decades what is now Elvis Presley Boulevard was the road to Memphis for those from Mississippi, whether they were coming to stay or coming to visit.
Traffic moves southbound on Elvis Presley Boulevard near Graceland, a stretch of road that the City Council might finally be stepping in to improve. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Much has changed since Elvis Presley moved into a home on a hill already named Graceland in the mid-1950s when Whitehaven was a country road not yet a part of the city of Memphis.
Much of the change has been along the road, while the street itself has remained a country road with higher traffic density and commercial uses that have adapted to the leftovers from the street’s past – like no sidewalks and poles crammed with utility connections that frame both sides of the corridor.
“I remember what Whitehaven used to look like,” Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr. recalled this week, referring to the decline of commerce. “If you don’t (remember) … go down Goodman Road right now,” he added, in a reference to Southaven.
Ford commented at a City Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 21, as the council moved up $16 million in city funding for long-planned, long-delayed improvements to the streetscape between Shelby Drive and Brooks Road.
Council member Harold Collins, whose district includes the boulevard and Graceland, succeeded in getting funding for the renovations: $8 million a year for two fiscal years starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“The people in this district have been waiting over 35 years to get this redeveloped,” Collins said. He has complained that the project has been shifted to outer years continually as newer projects have moved ahead of it – most recently the Overton Square parking garage and other improvements to the entertainment district. The council also approved the Overton Square planned development at Tuesday’s meeting.
Among those who backed Collins’ quest this week to move up Elvis Presley Boulevard was businessman and developer Nick Clark.
“Elvis Presley Boulevard has not kept up with what its potential is,” Clark said. His grandmother has lived on Bluebird Road since 1957. “It’s still like a country road with mailboxes on one side of the street, no sidewalks.”
Elvis Presley Enterprises CEO Jack Soden was among those making the case to the council.
“We’ve been standing in line for help on Elvis Presley Boulevard for 28 to 29 years,” Soden said. “This summer – in about three to four months – we’ll welcome our 18 millionth visitor.”
Soden says the banners and billboards of Graceland in a pastoral setting that visitors see on their way through Whitehaven don’t match the streetscape they encounter.
“Most of our 18 million visitors are thinking for at least a few minutes that they are lost and surely Graceland can’t be here,” he said.
EPE’s plans for a $150 million to $250 million expansion of the mansion and plaza into an entertainment district remain on hold as the majority ownership of the company has changed several times in recent years.
But Collins insists that’s not necessary to do things like put in sidewalks the boulevard has never had in many places, do some landscaping and either pare down the utility lines, back them away from the road or bury utility lines underground.
What helped him win council votes was an increase in state funding to $27 million for the improvements. The Tennessee Department of Transportation still hasn’t approved a specific plan and is still holding hearings to get public input according to City Engineer John Cameron.
TDOT held a set of public hearings two years ago among area residents who were frustrated then by being asked for input they had already given even before that to state planners.
Council member Kemp Conrad was concerned enough about the growth of the project over five years from $30 million to $44.5 million that he cast the only vote against the two-year piece of the funding, calling it “a bad precedent.”
“How can we continue to make decisions this way?” he asked. “It’s not just this project.”
Other council members said Collins’ push was the only way to move a project to a point where it will have a specific plan.
“I don’t think Elvis Presley’s ever going to get done if we wait,” said council member Reid Hedgepeth. “Do you think that four months ago, if councilman (Shea) Flinn and councilman (Jim) Strickland had not brought it here – do you think Overton Square would have ever gotten done?”
“Let’s stop comparing that because it was done there it should be done here,” Flinn replied. “I think that comparison makes the council look petty.”
“There are some petty people on this council,” council member Janis Fullilove added.