Tom Bailey Jr. from the Commercial Appeal wrote an article on the upcoming plans for Graceland. The man who controls Graceland says he's returning to Memphis next month to re-map the future of the tourist mecca. CKX Inc. has said they will spend $250 million improving 100 acres surrounding Graceland.
In the second or third week of January, Robert Sillerman said last week, "We are having an all-hands meeting in Memphis.''
One of his companies, CKX Inc., bought controlling interest of Elvis Presley Enterprises for $100 million in 2004.
Several years have now passed since CKX acquired 100 acres surrounding Graceland and first talked of a $250 million redevelopment of the entire area.
The work would include demolition of the old visitors center and Heartbreak Hotel and replacing them with larger, better facilities and hotels with convention space and improved public spaces.
Sillerman describes next month's event as a two-day design charrette, or intensive planning session.
Participants will include members of a master planning firm, architectural firm, design firm, "feasibility people," audio-visual experts and a project manager, he said in phone interview.
"We're taking a look at in what phases that should be developed," Sillerman said. "What needs to be developed first and how best we achieve maximization that pays homage to what is there.
"But also provide a whole new perspective on where we are going."
Although CKX and Elvis Presley Enterprises are counting on city, county and state support for items like improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard, the planning session at Graceland will be private.
"The meeting with government officials, such as they are, will take place individually," Sillerman said.
Within 90 to 120 days after the planning session, "we'll have a very specific idea of what it is we'd like to do," he said.
"We have continued to pursue ahead on the exploration side and the development side rather aggressively," he said. "We've actually engaged additional consultants."
The City of Memphis continues to be involved but is waiting on CKX, said Robert Lipscomb, who heads the city's Division of Housing and Community Development.
Asked what happens next, Lipscomb replied, "Them coming back with something more definitive."
Sillerman agreed, saying city officials "cannot respond to our request now any more positively than they have.
"But they need now to get specifics. They need to know exactly what the economic impact will be. How many hundreds or thousands of jobs will be created and what's the project's impact on all of the things that contribute to what makes this so attractive as a development."
The government's role will be "to do something with Elvis Presley Boulevard," Lipscomb said. That would include widening and making the street more visually appealing, especially between Graceland and the I-55 exit.
Both Sillerman and Lipscomb cited the difficult economy, with Sillerman adding that banks aren't lending money "the way they were."
Still, said Lipscomb, the project is hardly mothballed. "A deal like this takes time. It's a huge investment on the private part and a huge investment on the city's part."
Recent financial setbacks to some of Sillerman's ventures aren't affecting progress with the Graceland project, Sillerman said.
He made a fortune buying and selling entertainment and media companies (He owns the "American Idol" franchise), but he's recently experienced some well-publicized losses in real estate.
The Wall Street Journal published a story earlier this month about the failure of his new Caribbean resort, Temenos, in Anguilla, British West Indies.
Sillerman told the Journal he didn't expect to get back the $180 million he lost on Temenos, which is half-built and closed.
And he candidly told the Journal, "I think that I exhibited an element of hubris" because resort development "was not my area of expertise by any stretch of the imagination."
The Journal also reported that a Sillerman company purchased 18 acres on the Las Vegas Strip for a new casino-hotel, but the project never started and its $475 million mortgage is in default.
Those setbacks are "completely unrelated" to the Graceland project, Sillerman told The Commercial Appeal.
Graceland, he said, "is an extension of what we already know works.
"Heartbreak Hotel, despite the fact it was built as anything but a luxury hotel, maintains the highest occupancy of any hotel in the state of Tennessee," he said.
"What we're talking about is an extension of something that has proven to be successful that will be undertaken by the type of experts who can fulfill the vision."
While the Caribbean resort is not comparable to the Memphis enterprise, Sillerman said the lesson he takes from Temenos "is to make sure I'm surrounded by people or experts in their particular area.
"That's why the design charrette will be populated by literally the top people in each of their fields within the United States."
Sillerman still plans "additional stuff" related to Elvis in Las Vegas, although nothing as grand as a casino-hotel complex.
"I continue to believe the world in general and Las Vegas in particular is under Elvis. So we're going to take advantage of that."
But Graceland will not take a backseat to any Vegas enterprise, he said, adding, "Our No. 1 priority is Memphis."
-- Tom Bailey Jr.: