Elvis Lives in Graceland Bonds Due 67 Years After King’s Death

Every year, 600,000 people pay as much as $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 $125 million in bonds in January to finance improvements at Graceland. They’re 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 seven acres (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,” say documents detailing the plan.

“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.”

Good Rockin’

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 $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 was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, and got his first guitar at age 11. Two years later, the family moved to Memphis, home of Beale Street, where a signature blues sound prevailed. Presley recorded his first songs at what would become Sun Studio.

His blend of rock, blues and gospel, his looks and his swivel-hipped dances drove teenage girls to frenzy -- “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac” was Frank Sinatra’s description. He became the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and a movie star. Composer Leonard Bernstein called him “the greatest cultural force in the 20th century.”

Burning Love

As the years passed, a penchant for prescription drugs and fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches undermined his health and bloated his body. He took to the stage in sequined jump suits and jewelry, striking karate-inspired poses.

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.

Presley died in a Graceland bathroom at 42 in 1977 and is buried next to his parents near the swimming pool.

His daughter, Lisa Marie, owns the estate and more than 1 million artifacts, including Cadillacs, costumes, guitars and a 41-carat ruby and diamond ring. The mansion opened to the public in 1982, becoming the city’s biggest attraction.

Loving You

It sits on Elvis Presley Boulevard behind a gated wall covered with the scrawled messages to Elvis. Dollar stores, payday lenders, fast-food chains and used-car lots line the road, where vendors sell T-shirts, nuts, wheelchairs and walkers.

Graceland is the third-most-visited home in the U.S., 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 U.K. 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.

Ask Me

“The boomers remember what it meant to have Elvis come on the scene, the revolutionary effect that it had,” he 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.”

Expansion plans, including a conference-capable hotel, have been discussed for years, said Jack Soden, chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises. 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.

Documents distributed by the development authority say revenue bonds with a term of 30 years will be sold to finance the expansion. James McLaren, an attorney for the project, said the initial debt will be for a shorter term and then refinanced.

Suspicious Minds

Memphis and Shelby County agreed this month to allow half of the new property taxes and all new sales-tax revenue generated by the improvements to go toward the bonds for 20 years. A special sales-tax surcharge will also be charged inside the Graceland zone, raising the levy there to 14 percent from 9 percent.

Memphis, Shelby County and the development authority aren’t responsible for the debt if revenue flags.

Gene Gard, a portfolio manager with Dupree & Co. Inc. in Lexington, Kentucky, which manages about $118 million in Tennessee debt, said he is cautious about bonds secured by sometimes-unstable tourism revenue: “We are very careful when it comes to attraction bonds such as these. Any project can be a good investment but it all depends on the way they are secured.”

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Washington-based Good Jobs First, which criticizes tax breaks for private business, said he doubts the economic claims.

“Tourism is a thin reed for supporting jobs,” he said.

For now, Elvis’s crowds are coming.

On a weekday this month, a crowd gathered to wait for packed shuttle buses passing through the gates every 20 minutes. About half of the crowd had gray hair and a few used walkers. Yet among them were a young Peruvian man and a German couple, he with a mohawk and she with a shaved head.