EPE's expanding real estate empire & development plans
For more than 20 years, Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. CEO Jack Soden (pictured) has kept a file on Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. The subject of his study: Walt Disney Co.'s effort to clean up and develop the real estate around the "Happiest Place on Earth."
Disney so despised the jumbled development that grew up around Disneyland after it opened in 1955 that when Walt Disney World opened in Florida in 1971, the company persuaded the state to create a district around the resort that allowed Disney to oversee development.
Disney's real estate drama continues to this day: The company is suing the city of Anaheim to stop the construction of 1,500 condos near Disneyland.
So what does Disney have to do with Elvis Presley's Graceland?
Since Graceland opened to the public in 1982, EPE and its affiliated companies have gone on a real estate binge, buying everything from gas stations to apartment complexes around the King of Rock and Roll's Whitehaven mansion. Dramatic improvements to the area -- the subject of a summit last week of EPE, city
and county officials -- are coming, though details are sketchy.
"It took billions to fix what grew up around Disneyland in California and when they went to Florida, they bought 27,000 acres and assembled it before anyone knew," said Soden in a recent interview. "I've always thought if we make Graceland as big a draw as it can be, we are going to suffer if we don't control the doughnut of land around us."
Today, as Robert F.X. Sillerman, who paid $100 million for an 85 percent stake in EPE in 2005, works on plans to turn Graceland into an international attraction on par with Disneyland, EPE and its affiliates own or control about 105 acres around the mansion. For a little perspective, the Memphis Zoo sits on roughly 70 acres.
Since January 2006, EPE and its affiliated companies have spent at least $13.4 million acquiring property, according to Shelby County Register Tom Leatherwood's office. The properties include a 182-unit apartment complex on Craft Road behind the existing Graceland Plaza, and a former auto dealership at
3674 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Sillerman, who was in town last week to update officials on his plans for Graceland, wants to "dramatically expand" the visitors center at Graceland and expand exhibit space to showcase thousands of pieces of Elvis memorabilia that have never been seen.
Sillerman, who became a billionaire by building and selling media companies, has also indicated he could build new hotels, improve the public spaces around Graceland, create more convention space and possibly build an outdoor amphitheater. The investment could easily top $100 million and forever change the
face of South Memphis.
"He put some real meat on the bones of what he had previously discussed as a concept," said Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton of the meeting. "I'll say it's comprehensive, but I can't really get into details."
On Thursday, Wharton joined Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane, city chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb, members of the Memphis Regional Chamber and Priscilla Presley at Graceland for a closed-door meeting with Sillerman, whose firm CKX Inc. also owns the hit television show "American Idol" and an 85 percent stake in the name, image and likeness of boxing great Muhammad Ali.
Sillerman has argued that Elvis and Ali, two of the most recognizable and enduring stars of the 20th century, are underused brands.
Sillerman (pictured) has already hired Orlando, Fla.-based Bob Weis Design Island Associates to improve the area around Graceland while keeping the historic home intact.
BWDI designed "Top of the Rock," the new observation deck and interactive visitor center atop Rockefeller Center in New York. BWDI has also done master planning and exhibit work for Kennedy Space Center.
When he visited Memphis last year, Sillerman indicated that cleaning up the area around Graceland was critical and that it would probably take a public/private partnership.
"We do know that the area that Graceland sits in is not the most attractive area," he said.
"We know that that needs enhancement, if you will. Beyond that, the plans aren't specifically developed enough to know what that partnership form is going to take.
"But we do know that this is not something that Elvis Presley Enterprises and the Elvis Presley family can undertake by themselves."
Since then, civic and business leaders have committed themselves to improving the area that includes Memphis International Airport, Brooks Road and Graceland.
The Brooks Corridor has become a jarring juxtaposition of decay and prosperity. Bounded by I-240, U.S. 78, Raines Road and U.S. 61, it's also home to three key industries the city wants to promote: distribution and logistics, medical device manufacturing and tourism and entertainment.
The Memphis City Council on Tuesday asked the Herenton administration to come up with a plan for a Center City Commission-like board to oversee the redevelopment within 30 days.
"It needs to be because we have around 600,000 people, for the most part getting off at the interstate at Brooks and Elvis Presley, making their way down to Graceland," said Soden. "Every step of the way they have to be going, 'Surely we're lost.'
"A lot of them have this vision of Tara and they're coming down Elvis Presley Boulevard saying, 'It can't be here.' But, you know, Graceland tends to save the day."
Real Estate fit for a king
Since Graceland opened to the public in 1982, EPE and its affiliated companies have gone on a real estate binge, buying everything from gas stations to apartment complexes around the King of Rock and Roll's Whitehaven mansion.
In 1993, EPE purchased what is now known as Graceland Plaza, the visitors center and retail area across the street from the mansion.
In 1997, EPE bought Graceland Crossing, a neighboring shopping center with stores that featured Elvis-related items, located just north of Graceland Plaza.
In 1999, EPE bought an existing hotel near Graceland and turned it into what is known today as Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel.
Since January 2006, EPE and its affiliated companies have spent at least $13.4 million acquiring property near Graceland.