Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Elvis' Graceland Gets Overhaul

The thousands of Elvis Presley fans descending on Memphis for the 30th anniversary of his death August 16th won't see much sign of it, but plans are moving along for big-time changes at Graceland. Managers of Presley's famous home want to overhaul its tourist complex with a new visitors center bigger than a football field, a convention hotel and high-tech museum displays that can give a new, digital life to the King himself. All it will take to bring about those wonders is $250 million or so; the total reorganization of CKX Inc., the New York-based company that controls all things Elvis; and a publicly supported facelift for Graceland's struggling neighborhood.

The obstacles are far from small, but the people behind the plans, led by CKX Chairman Robert F.X. Sillerman, have a history of putting together big deals and making money for investors. Sillerman, a multimillionaire dealer in media and entertainment assets, took over Graceland in 2005 when he bought the rights to Elvis' name and image from daughter Lisa Marie, Presley's sole heir. When Presley died, his finances were in sad shape. Led by his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, the estate formed Elvis Presley Enterprises, opened Graceland to the public and solidified the legal rights to make money on Elvis' name and image. Lisa Marie Presley still owns her father's house and 15 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises, but CKX controls Graceland and its sprawling complex of souvenir shops and memorabilia museums. "As great as it is," Sillerman said after a recent visit to Graceland, "it can be so much better."

The big, white-columned house Presley bought in 1957 for just over $100,000 draws close to 600,000 visitors a year, and for a week around the anniversary of his death on August 16, 1977, it attracts legions of his still-adoring fans. Graceland's current visitors center, souvenir shops and museums were cobbled together by renovating a small strip mall across the street from what the Elvis faithful affectionately call "the mansion." The new plans call for leveling all that and building a 80,000-square-foot visitors center designed from the ground up for handling big crowds and high-tech exhibits. "To put that in perspective, that's about six or seven times the size of the mansion," Sillerman said. The center will be equipped for the kind of technical wizardry that allowed singer Celine Dion to recently perform what appeared to be a live duet with Elvis on the American Idol TV show, which CKX also owns. "People will actually think Elvis is there," Sillerman said. "It's going to be, 'Oh, wow,' I can tell you that."

For years, Elvis Presley Enterprises, now a CKX subsidiary, has been buying land for expansion and has put together 100-acres needed for the renovation, which would move the tourist center to the same side of Elvis Presley Boulevard as Graceland. "We've continued all these years to be a major destination attraction with a busy, pretty unattractive street running right through the middle of it," said Jack Soden, EPE's top executive and a major player in opening Graceland to the public in 1982. Graceland's 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, also on the wrong side of the four-lane street, is to be replaced by a convention hotel, on the better side, with up to 500 rooms. No timeline for the expansion has been set, Soden said. "But moving straight ahead, with every intention of keeping the ball moving, we're probably looking at something in the neighborhood of a three-year process," he said.

Graceland managers have been working on their expansion plans for more than a year, and Sillerman has come to Memphis to talk with city, county and state officials about their assistance. CKX wants a "mutual cooperation agreement" with local government for major highway and utility improvements and renovation help for other businesses in the area, particularly along Elvis Presley Boulevard, a once vibrant commercial strip now dotted with used-car lots and empty buildings. "We don't want to create an island," Soden said. "We want to be a catalyst for the right kind of growth and the right kind of revitalization of the commercial corridors."

Source: MSNBC.com

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