Downtown-to-Elvis project costs to double

TUPELO – A major transportation improvement project connecting downtown to the Elvis Presley birthplace will cost an estimated $2.2 million, nearly twice the original estimated price tag.
The city is expected to foot $500,000 of the cost.
The figures were released Tuesday at a City Council work session during which the council was asked to commit to the half-million-dollar amount.
Without the council’s backing, the Mississippi Department of Transportation won’t release grant money for the project, which was initiated by the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association.
Association Executive Director Debbie Brangenberg and Community Development Foundation Planning Director Jon Milstead both attended the council meeting to make the funding request.
“MDOT has asked for the application as soon as possible,” Milstead said. “They’re waiting on our project and some others to allocate funding. I’m thinking within three months … that money will be allocated.”
The money will pay for sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, ramps, landscaping and other improvements along Main Street from the heart of historic downtown Tupelo east to Veterans Boulevard and up Reese Street to the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum.
When complete, it will provide easy pedestrian access to two popular tourist attractions: the birthplace and downtown’s Tupelo Hardware store, where Elvis got his first guitar.
Originally, Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association’s master plan focused on a three-block stretch of Main Street. That plan was estimated to cost roughly $550,000 and would use MDOT Transportation Enhancement grant money.
But MDOT came back and suggested the larger project extending 1.5 miles to the birthplace. Milstead last month said that might add $1 million to the price tag. But after several weeks of rough engineering, the final cost appears closer to the $2 million mark.
The MDOT grant is an 80-20 match, thus creating the need for the city’s financial support.
“This is a window of opportunity for east Tupelo, and it’s one we can’t afford to miss,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis, whose district includes the birthplace and museum.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and other council members agreed.
But Jim Newell and Mike Bryan, of Wards 3 and 6, said the city can’t afford to continue spending money on non-essential projects.
Just last week, they noted, the council had agreed to provide a $560,000 match on another state grant to improve the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum.
Both said they support the Main Street enhancement but worry about its impact on city finances.
“We need to prioritize our projects because we have a lot of projects on the table,” Newell said. “There’s not enough money to cover” them all.
If Tupelo approves the match, it won’t need to raise taxes nor will it need to spend the money in one lump sum, said city Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris.
It will be spread out over the course of the project, which could take two or three years to complete. The same is true of the grant the city agreed to match last week.
Norris also said the Tupelo Major Thoroughfare Program might be able to contribute some funding.
The thoroughfare program is a taxpayer-supported initiative that widens and improves major streets throughout the city. The program already calls for widening East Main Street along the same stretched outlined in the current project.
And Brangenberg said she has approached other potential funding sources, some of which are favorable to supporting the plan. She has no firm commitments from them, yet.
The council is expected to approve its letter to MDOT at its July 6 meeting.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal