A newly built sign marking Elvis Presley Boulevard sits at the intersection of the boulevard and Brooks Road on Aug. 6 in Memphis. (AP Photo)
MEMPHIS — The road to Graceland is not a pretty sight. At least not yet.
Elvis Presley Boulevard leads hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to Graceland, the late rock 'n' roll icon's Memphis mansion, and to the exhibits across the street. Tourists exit off Interstate 55 and cruise through a mile's worth of empty businesses, vacant lots, crooked utility poles, crumbling sidewalks, poor lighting and drab landscaping.
Fast-food joints and gas stations are the main options for eating nearest to Graceland. Businesses such as used-car dealerships and auto-parts stores also are part of the mix. Lodging options are not plentiful: The highest-quality chain hotels in the immediate area are an EconoLodge and a Days Inn.
Susan Green and her husband, David, came from Jasper, Ga., to visit Graceland last week, just days before the start of Elvis Week, an annual event during which throngs descend on Memphis to celebrate Presley's life and career, capped by a candlelight vigil at Graceland to remember his death on Aug. 16, 1977.
"I wasn't that impressed," Green said of Presley Boulevard. "I expected something more grand. I think it could use a little sprucing up."
To make the road more welcoming for tourists and more pleasant for residents of the working- and middle-class community of Whitehaven just past Graceland, the city has begun making a series of infrastructure improvements. Workers already have widened and repaved one main intersection and plan to do the same to several others.
Officials say they believe the planned improvements to utilities, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, signs and lighting — plus new artwork at intersections and along the road — will impress tourists, lure new businesses, improve pedestrian and traffic safety, and better the quality of life in Whitehaven.
The $43 million project began early this year and is expected to be completed in 2016 or 2017, said Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins, the driving force behind the plan. Funding has been split between the state's $27 million and $16 million from the city.
"When the finished product is done, tourists will see a new boulevard that's fitting for their visit to Graceland but also fitting for the community that surrounds Graceland," Collins said.
Cab driver Frank Williams, who takes people to and from Graceland every day, said he would like to see some bumps in the road fixed and a lower speed limit between three stoplights that bracket the boulevard right in front of Graceland.
"This is a busy area. It will make commuting much easier," Williams said. "Whitehaven is like a city within a city."
One key aspect of the project is removing the unsightly power poles that line the boulevard. Memphis Light, Gas and Water plans to install a network of underground power lines to replace cracked wooden poles.
Another important part of the project involves business owners, who are being told they need to make changes at their own expense to their properties to conform to the new look. Collins and others hope vacant lots and abandoned storefronts will be replaced by new businesses that can serve the community and boosting the tax base.
"(Business owners) are excited about it, but they also are cautious because they know they're going to have to invest some dollars for their business," Collins said.
Collins said luring higher-quality restaurants and hotels is a long-term goal of the project. Most visitors to Graceland stay in downtown Memphis or near the airport, deciding to drive to the tourist attraction or take shuttles. Most of the hotels within walking distance of Graceland are locally owned, with a smattering of low-budget chain hotels.
At least one major company, IHG, plans to build a Holiday Inn Express hotel in the area. In an emailed statement, Sandip Patel, the owner of the planned Holiday Inn Express, said the city's "efforts and commitment to revitalize Elvis Presley Boulevard" were factors in the decision to build near Graceland.
Jack Soden — CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which is in charge of operating the Graceland tourist attraction and managing the licensing of Presley-related products and materials — said improvements to the boulevard are important for Graceland and the more than 500,000 tourists who visit yearly.
"Visitors to Graceland, who are 99.9 percent from out of town, are forming an impression about where they are and forming an impression about Memphis from Elvis Presley Boulevard," Soden said.
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