Every year, 600,000 people pay as much as US$74 to tour Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion, gaping at animal skulls and stained-glass peacocks, lime-green shag carpet on the Jungle Room’s floor and lime-green shag carpet on its ceiling.
Now a development authority plans to sell as much as US$125 million in bonds next month to finance improvements at Graceland. They are counting on the curious to keep streaming to the privately owned estate for decades, generating sales, property and special tourism taxes to pay the debt over as long as 30 years.
A 450-room hotel and conference center, restaurants, a theater and as much as 2.8 hectares of retail and exhibit space are envisioned. The improvements will “preserve the incomparable legacy of Elvis Presley, The Icon and The Man,” documents detailing the plan say.
“We want to solidify the Elvis brand, give it a new sheen and polish,” said Reid Dulberger, chief executive of the Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County, which will issue the bonds in a private placement.
The facilities “were old and tired,” he said. “Our concern was that we wouldn’t continue to see the kind of return visits that we see year after year from the faithful.”
Memphis, on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, has a population of 653,450, of whom 63 percent are black and 27 percent live below the poverty line. It has lost 35,700 jobs since the recession, according a report from the Greater Memphis Chamber. An improved Graceland would have a US$1 billion impact on Memphis’ economy over the next 15 years, according to documents distributed by backers.
Success depends on the staying power of a legend. Presley bought Graceland in 1957 and decorated it with gaudy verve.
The Jungle Room includes monkey statues, a stone wall with ivy and a mammoth coffee table of petrified wood. The pleated fabric ceiling of the billiards room drapes above the game table like an upside-down sofa pillow. Television screens line the media room.
His daughter, Lisa Marie, owns the estate and more than 1 million artifacts, including costumes, guitars, Cadillacs and a 41-carat ruby and diamond ring. The mansion opened to the public in 1982, becoming the city’s biggest attraction.
Graceland is the third-most-visited home in the US, after the White House and the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, according to Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages the attraction.
Twenty-two percent of visitors are from other countries, with Canada and the UK in the lead.
The Elvis Week waiting list at Graceland’s 128-room Heartbreak Hotel is 100 years long.
Paying off the new project’s debt will require sustained interest in Presley, said Tom McBride, a professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin who co-authors the Mindset List, an enumeration of cultural phenomena familiar to the young.
A 15-year-old in 1956, when Heartbreak Hotel went to No. 1, would be 73 today.
“The boomers remember what it meant to have Elvis come on the scene, the revolutionary effect that it had,” McBride said.
The young “have a vague sense of him as a rock ’n’ roll icon. They might go to Graceland ironically, or maybe out of a sense of curiosity,” he said.
Expansion plans, including a conference-capable hotel, have been discussed for years, Elvis Presley Enterprises chief executive Jack Soden said.
The idea got traction last year after a partnership led by Joel Weinshanker, founder of National Entertainment Collectibles Association of Hillside, New Jersey, acquired the company.
“Elvis is a huge growth area,” Weinshanker told Bloomberg Television in August.
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