By Sheena Barnett | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The grounds of the Elvis Presley Birthplace usually are very still and quiet, but on a blustery winter afternoon last week, the rattle of tools and construction filled the chilly air.
Last April, construction began on a $6.3 million expansion at the birthplace to add parking spaces, a 125-seat indoor theater, a 75-seat amphitheater and a picnic area. The expansion, which will help the birthplace accommodate twice the number of visitors, is in the first phase of a two-part plan.
The parking lot work – which doubled the number of parking spaces – is complete. It also now can accommodate buses and RVs. Behind the museum and chapel, construction has started on the theater.
“By the first of next week, they’ll put in the concrete blocks to start the walls,” said Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. “We’ll begin to see walls coming up in the next 10-15 days.”
But for Guyton, “it’s way too slow coming.”
He’s ready to see the project completed.
“The contractor says June. I’m saying July. But it has to be available by August, because it’s the 35th anniversary of his death,” Guyton said. “We always have a large crowd for that. Groups from Germany, Belgium and England have said they’re coming, and one of those groups has over 200 already booked.”
The new theater in phase one will include glass cases for artifacts, a snack bar and more.
Phase two plans
The second phase of the expansion includes 700-800-seat amphitheater, a new Elvis sculpture, a covered pavilion at the overlook and a picnic area near the Elvis Presley Lake. The overlook will include stories from Elvis’ childhood, as remembered by his friends in Tupelo.
The statue will feature young Elvis and adult Elvis.
“One side will have a little boy sitting down, dreaming, looking back as if he looks back to see what’s to come,” Guyton said. “The other side is entertainer Elvis in all his garb. It’s called ‘Becoming.’”
All of the new theaters and gathering places will be open for use by the city, and the public can rent the spaces.
A fundraising campaign is ongoing to cover the cost of phase two, and Guyton said he hopes construction begins on phase 2 before construction on phase one is complete.
All the extra space means the birthplace grounds can simply hold more people.
And, by giving tourists more to see and explore, they’ll stay longer – hopefully, Guyton said, overnight. That means more restaurant and hotel business for the city.
Right now, the tour of the grounds lasts about an hour and a half. With the expansion, they could keep a visitor there for four hours, Guyton said.
Guyton would like to see more local visitors at the birthplace. To provide an incentive, the birthplace is selling local fans a $65 annual pass that allows them to bring five people six different times a year to the birthplace.
“It’s a big money-saver when you have a lot of friends and family coming to the area,” he said.
Pardon the mess
Not all of this construction has gone without its problems, however.
Guyton’s office is currently carpet-less.
The construction changed the way the water flows around the grounds, so his office and the gift shop flood when it rains.
Guyton ripped up the soggy carpet after the last rainfall, and the contractors are working to prevent the problem.
There also will be a 60-90 day period during which no restrooms will be available at the birthplace except for portable toilets, as the museum continues its expansion.
But with so many positive changes coming to the birthplace, those are minor problems, Guyton said.
“Some things will be an inconvenience,” he said, “but it’ll be worth it if we wait.”
THE ELVIS PRESLEY BIRTHPLACE will celebrate the King’s birthday today at 2 p.m. Admission is free to the birthplace, which will serve cake and punch.