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VOL. 123 | NO. 163 | Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whitehaven Makeover Closer to Reality

By Bill Dries

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Demolition on a Whitehaven apartment complex owned by Elvis Presley Enterprises could begin by the end of this year, said Memphis City Council member Harold Collins.

And the pastor of the Whitehaven church where Collins held a standing-room-only town hall meeting this week indicated land speculators are preparing for the pending $250 million makeover of Graceland into a tourism development zone.

Collins, whose district includes Graceland and the surrounding Whitehaven area, told a crowd of more than 120 people at the town hall meeting at Middle Baptist Church Whitehaven he is trying to battle an “I don’t know syndrome” surrounding the project by offering what he knows.

He detailed Graceland’s purchase of two apartment complexes off Craft Road in the last year that adjoin the Graceland Plaza across the street from Elvis Presley’s mansion. Collins also repeated what he said in a story in the Aug. 13-19 edition of The Memphis News, www.thememphisnews.com. Graceland plans to move its operation in the plaza for selling tickets and boarding tour buses to the same side of Elvis Presley Boulevard as the mansion. He also said there are plans to build a luxury hotel on the east side of the state highway as well.

“This will be what I consider the first step the city has taken away from Downtown to redevelop another area,” Collins said as Whitehaven residents questioned the impact the Graceland expansion would have on their homes. “The neighbors have to buy into the process. … ‘Elvis Presley has been a good neighbor to us. You also have to be a good business neighbor to us.’”

Neighborly ways

Tax incentives will include a tourism development zone stretching from Elvis Presley and Brooks Road to Elvis Presley and Shelby Drive.

State Rep. Karen Camper, a Democrat whose district includes Whitehaven, told this week’s townhall meeting that state or local government likely will be asked to put up $40 million in taxpayer funding of some kind to improve infrastructure such as sidewalks, sewers, streets and utilities as part of the agreement with CKX Inc., the parent company of Elvis Presley Enterprises. She said the cost estimate came from “investors” in the project.

“They’re saying, if they come with all the motels and all the restaurants and all the things that they want to do, it’s going to strain the infrastructure,” said Camper, who was elected to a full two-year term in the state House earlier this month after winning appointment to the seat. “It’s going to be hard to find $40 million at any level. And that’s today’s cost. That’s not to say in two years what that cost could be. That is something that could stop the project if we don’t negotiate and try to find the money.”

Middle Baptist Pastor Lester Baskin said the church owns 14 acres in the area and was approached recently with an offer to buy the land. Baskin turned down the offer but told Collins it was obvious to him the offer was because the prospective buyer knew something.

“The planners won’t tell me,” Baskin said of city officials he contacted to find out what is planned nearby.

“Planning and development doesn’t know,” Collins replied.

“Undoubtedly, they know something we don’t know,” Baskin countered.

Robert F.X. Sillerman, the president and CEO of CKX, said last week he hopes to unveil some plans for the expanded Graceland in the next six months. He also downplayed earlier descriptions in which his company described the expansion of Graceland as being like a theme park. Sillerman and Collins have each specifically said the plans for Graceland do not include “roller coasters and Ferris wheels” towering over the surrounding neighborhoods.

Sillerman and officials at EPE have had little to say about the plans beyond statements made in CKX’s 2007 annual report. No one from EPE was at Monday’s two-hour meeting.

Sillerman told a convention of Elvis fans in a recorded interview last week that the timetable depends on the actions of local government and state leaders.

PROPERTY SALES 51 223 1,152
MORTGAGES 55 189 861
BUILDING PERMITS 149 541 2,593