By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Five years of dreaming are about to pay off for the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo.
In a little more than a month, officials will unveil the new expansion that more than doubles the size of the popular tourist attraction.
Visitors in August will be able to watch a movie or an artist perform in the new 120-seat theater decorated with purple, crushed velvet drapes. Workers on Wednesday were rapidly varnishing the venue’s maple baseboards in anticipation of the throngs of visitors.
“I’ve been excited for five years,” said Dick Guyton, executive director of the birthplace. “We started talking about a theater five years ago.”
The $4.3 million project broke ground in April 2011. Guyton had hoped to have the project finished this month, but everything took longer than expected. Now the deadline is Aug. 9, which is Tupelo’s fan appreciation day. He said the expansion could open in late July if everything is finished.
When it’s all done, the covered area of the birthplace will go from about 6,000 square feet to 16,000, Guyton said.
The goal of the expansion is to double the visitor count to the birthplace during the next five years. It had about 40,000 paying visitors last year, according to the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
On Wednesday, there was a flurry of activity throughout the property as concrete was poured for outdoor picnic areas, floors were laid for storage spaces and ceilings were perfected in the multipurpose hall. Eventually, pergolas will be added over sidewalks to provide more shade for visitors.
The rock seats already are in place for the amphitheater, which seats at least 75 people. Guyton said sod will be planted on each level so visitors can bring their own chairs or sit on the grass.
The gift shop will be bigger and will connect to the snack bar and theater. The snack bar will serve soda, chips, coffee, muffins and other small items.
“One of the things we decided early on is that we needed hot tea because the folks from Europe, especially England, love their hot tea,” he said.
The additions also have made the birthplace friendlier to special-event planners. A catering prep room, a conference room and a dressing room have been added.
“It’s something we have needed and the community has needed for a long time,” Guyton said.
The theater and the current additions are part of phase one of the expansion, which also includes last fall’s tripling of on-site parking capacity.
The projects are funded partially by a $2.8 tourism bond bill approved by the state in 2010. The bill required a 20 percent local match, which was provided by the city of Tupelo ($310,000), the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau ($150,000) and the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation ($100,000).
The Tupelo CVB board last year gave another $100,000 to the total project.
As of Wednesday, the birthplace has raised $3.9 million for the project, according to campaign director Blair Hill. He feels good about hitting the goal and moving toward raising the $2 million needed for phase two.
Phase two includes an outdoor amphitheater for at least 700 people and improvements to the overlook.
“It’s just unlimited to what we’re going to be able to do and what the community is going to be able to use it for,” Guyton said. “Elvis felt he had to share and now we feel we need to share.”
The Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation hopes to raise $6.3 million to expand the birthplace in Tupelo. It’s raised $3.9 million so far.
To contribute, call Blair Hill at the birthplace (662-841-1245) or CREATE (662-844-8989).