Thursday, March 7, 2002, Vol. 116, No. 46

Gold rush in De Soto County Elvis-themed resort gets DeSoto County all shook up By MARY DANDO The Daily News A legal battle is brewing over use of the name of one of Mississippis favorite sons. On one hand, it seemed as if De Soto County had found a good luck charm in the way of a $500 million resort development. On the other, residents in Walls and those who claim all right to the name, image or likeliness of the King of Rock n Roll believe the Georgia developer aint nothin but a hound dog and are willing to fight tooth and nail over the plan. Emotions ran high as more than 50 people packed the DeSoto County planning commission meeting Feb. 28 to hear the developer outline his plans to convert land near Goodman Road and state Highway 301 into the Elvis Presley Ranch resort. J.D. Stacy of Alpharetta, Ga., along with architect J.A. Zan Thompson of Gresham, Smith and Partners are proposing developing 802 acres into the resort. The land includes the 154-acre Circle G Ranch property once owned by Presley and where he spent his honeymoon in 1967. Presley sold the property in 1974 after his divorce from Priscilla. Currently, the land is zoned agricultural/residential. Developers are asking for it to be rezoned as a planned unit development. Describing Elvis Presleys popularity as akin to that of Jesus Christ, Thompson outlined plans to build "a world-class resort" on the property including a nine-story hotel, two championship golf courses, a museum, two auditoriums, recording studios and putt-putt golf. Also included are a convention center, retail shops, an entertainment complex and a spa. Addressing the concerns of nearby residents in Walls that multifamily housing is included, Thompson said the proposals would include condominiums priced from $600,000 to $1.2 million and honeymoon cottages replicating the original Presley cottage. The original is currently preserved on the property. The entire project should take about two years to build. Another issue of concern is increased traffic volume on Goodman Road. Thompson said the resort would mean less than 1 percent increase in traffic if everyone came by car. To add to the "comfort level" of residents and county planners, he said most guests would come by bus directly from the airport. Those who come by car will park in a centrally controlled parking area and everyone will be transported around the property in resort-owned vehicles. Thompson also addressed the issue of drainage from the resort onto adjoining property. He assured the commission EPR Enterprises would do everything required to avoid drainage problems. "Were here to work with the staff and build a first-class resort," he said. Because DeSoto County does not have zoning classifications, Thompson said EPR was asking for the resort to be rezoned as a PUD to allow for greater flexibility on such a multi-faceted project. Stacy said an Elvis-themed resort would attract people from all over the world. He estimated about 3 million visitors a year. He said there are about 500 million Elvis fans worldwide and most dont live in America. He also claims he doesnt need to seek permission from Elvis Presley Enterprises to use the Elvis name because the ranch once belonged to Presley and it was referred to as the Elvis Presley ranch on the property deed. "When it was sold it was called the former Elvis Presley ranch. We have been advised by the top intellectual property attorneys that gives us all the rights to use the name the Elvis Presley Ranch," Stacy said in a telephone interview Wednesday. In a statement, Jack Soden, president and chief executive officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises, said the fact Elvis once owned the ranch does not convey any rights to his name, image or likeness. "The developer of the proposed Elvis Presley Ranch project in DeSoto County, Miss., does not have the right to register or trademark Elvis Presleys name for this venture without permission from Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., despite his bold statements to the contrary," Soden said. Soden said also it had become clear that Elvis Presley Enterprises would now have to prepare for legal action. EPE communications director Todd Morgan confirmed said Tuesday that so far the organization has not received any communication from Elvis Presley Ranch developers. "The first thing we heard about this whole project was when we read it in the paper," he said. Morgan said the developer is incorrect in assuming he can use the Elvis Presley name without permission. "If Walt Disney had owned a piece of property down there could somebody come in and build their own Walt Disney World? No," he said. "We are the trademark owner. The name, image and likeness of Elvis Presley are trademarks. We own and control that trademark. And his name, image or likeness cannot be commercially exploited without our permission." Stacy was asked by planning commission member Claudia Niebanck if he had secured sufficient funding for the project. He assured her he had a great number of people wishing to invest but was vague about details. The 72-year-old millionaire has spearheaded several financial enterprises in the past. Kentucky-born Stacy began as a mechanics helper progressing to an ironworker and equipment operator. He started his own construction company in 1951. In 1977, he established a NASCAR racing team and once briefly managed Dale Earnhardt. He also engaged in a joint $600 million project with a Dutch company, RSV, and the Dutch government to develop, manufacture and operate a thin seamed coal-mining machine. He sold his interest in the project in 1984. Although Stacy spoke to the planning commission, it was his son, J.B. "Chase" Stacy who previously outlined the project to some members of Horn Lake Chamber of Commerce in a meeting closed to the public and the media. Although many of those who attended the planning meeting were anxious to express their views, when they did speak it was mostly complimentary. Horn Lake Chamber of Commerce executive director Don Wilkinson said the resort would mean 2,500 to 3,000 permanent jobs and when completed would bring $400 million onto the tax rolls. Not everyone is convinced of the soundness of the project. Susan Whitten of Walls has 10 acres abutting what would be the resorts parking lot. "Stacy said two years, the commission said two hours and we were given two minutes," she said. Stacy told those at the meeting he would buy the properties of anyone adjoining the resort for more than market value. Whitten took him up on his offer, and is still waiting for him to return her call. She said she has heard similar stories from her neighbors. A Milwaukee-based real estate broker, Whitten returned to Walls to live near her parents. Between them they own about 20 acres. "Its all smoke and mirrors," she said. Unsuccessful attempts to rezone the property as a PUD have been made in the past. Even if EPR walks away from the project, having it zoned PUD makes it a more attractive venture for another developer, she said. Following the presentation, the planning commission granted preliminary approval of the EPR proposal. The DeSoto County Board of Supervisors will hear the rezoning application at 9 a.m. April 3.