As early afternoon truck traffic on Brooks Road mixed with after-school traffic Friday, Nov. 16, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a few tourists from the Graceland area mixed with several dozen local government and business leaders at the visitors center at the intersection.
Streetscape improvements on Elvis Presley Boulevard finally kick off.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
If they were expecting another Elvis-centric event the day the Christmas lights were turned on at Graceland, they were surprised.
At the kickoff to long-awaited streetscape improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard between Brooks and Shelby Drive, the tone was decidedly local and long range.
“For over 30 years, business owners, tourists from all over the world and the residents of the greatest community in Shelby County have endured a transformation of our community to what we see now,” said Memphis City Council member Harold Collins, the political force behind the state and local funding for the road and infrastructure improvements. “We also say to the visitors of Memphis that redevelopment is taking place in our core city again.”
Collins and the other political and business leaders spoke outside the small visitors center that was an early modest goal of the effort to revitalize Whitehaven.
Collins said there might be some changes down the road, so to speak, for the center.
“As we go forward with the redevelopment of the street … there will be assets along the boulevard that we believe could be used for other opportunities,” he said when asked specifically about the visitors center. “We are looking at everything as we go forward. We’re not done yet.”
The streetscape improvements begin after the funding was secured several times over the years but then shifted to other parts of the city. Collins was wary the same thing would happen as a new round of public hearings began earlier this year, repeating a process that can delay even the most routine state road project for years.
The administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has worked to cut some years off the traditional road project timeline.
The specific improvements will bring a more consistent look to Elvis Presley Boulevard, a U.S. highway that was a major thoroughfare even before Whitehaven was annexed into Memphis in the late 1960s.
Parts of the boulevard haven’t changed much at all from the pre-annexation country highway.
“Over the years it’s become rutted and worn out just from the heavy truck traffic,” City Engineer John Cameron said. “We’ll be adding curb and gutter where there is no curb and gutter. One of the key things is we are going to make it more pedestrian friendly by adding sidewalks all the way up and down the road. Right now there are long segments that don’t have any sidewalk.”
Major intersections like the one at Brooks Road will get stylized crosswalks at the intersections to promote a stronger individual identity for the area.
Most but not all of the utility poles should go over the next few years of work in three phases starting at Brooks and going south.
“We’re working to get most of the utilities underground,” Cameron said. “At the cross streets there may be utilities. But for the major portion of the road, we’re going to be putting utilities either underground or on the back property lines or feeding the users from different directions rather than from the street.”
Brooks is more than a gateway to Elvis Presley Boulevard. It is where the hub of the aerotropolis concept – Memphis International Airport – links up with Whitehaven’s version of Main Street.
“This is the western anchor to the aerotropolis plan,” said Andre Dean, vice president of public policy and community affairs at the Greater Memphis Chamber. “It’s going to be huge to the overall strategy. We have a lot of large employers in this corridor. This is not just good for tourism, it’s good for industry.”
Jack Soden, the CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, agreed on the larger impact.
“We’ve needed it for a good portion of the 30 years since Graceland opened. Even by the mid- to late-80s the exodus has started. Anyway, it’s long overdue,” Soden said. “Of course, Elvis Presley Boulevard is a gateway to Graceland. … But the fact is it is the gateway for tens of thousand of wonderful residents of Whitehaven. At the heart of it is that.”
Not that Graceland’s impact is anything less than major on the area and the city as a whole.
Later that day, in throwing the switch on the Christmas lights, Soden and Graceland executives announced the landmark has hit the 18 million mark of visitors who have toured the late entertainer’s home since it opened to the public in the early 1980s.