Legislators to try again for support for Elvis birthplace

JACKSON – Officials and supporters of the Elvis Presley Birthplace again will ask legislators to love them tender when the 2010 session begins in January.
Last year Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who claims to be the No. 1 Presley fan in the Legislature, was unsuccessful in his efforts to pass a $4.27 million bond issue to finance improvements at the birthplace in east Tupelo.
He says he again will seek state bond funds to help with planned enhancements at the birthplace museum, which already is the state’s No. 1 tourism attraction, averaging between 75,000 and 80,000 visitors per year.
Holland acknowledged that because of sagging tax revenues that it will be difficult to pass any bonds during the 2010 session. But, he said, “in bad times you still need to start thinking of things that generate a revenue source for the state and for local governments. Tourism does.”
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said in an earlier interview that especially in difficult times, the Legislature should not neglect tourism.
“There are huge possibilities in tourism that could lead to employing more people and to producing more revenue for the state,” McCoy said.
Holland and Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Foundation, said the birthplace provides one of those opportunities, and not just as a second stop for Elvis fans who travel to Graceland.
“We need to take the Elvis Presley Birthplace to the next level,” Holland said recently. “Right now in most instances it is not a destination, it is a hopping-off point. You have all those folks come to Memphis for three or four days and they come to Tupelo for three or four hours.
“We’re not capturing the benefits of birthing the King of rock ’n’ roll.”
Guyton said the foundation is working on a seven-year master plan for improvements at the birthplace. The recent location at the birthplace of the Assembly of God church where the Presley family attended and Elvis sang as a young child was the first step in that master plan.
Guyton said he is not yet prepared to unveil the rest of the master plan, but said state assistance would aid with the planned enhancements.
“If we can encourage more people to stay longer,” Guyton said, “it will have a big impact on the economy of the city.”
During a recent meeting of the influential Legislative Budget Committee, Holland discussed the need for providing state help with the birthplace improvements.
Asked about the issue later on, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who chairs the Legislative Budget Committee, said, “Of course I support the development of the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo. I believe tourism plays a vital role in Mississippi’s economy and we should encourage it.”
Despite the state’s economic woes, Holland said he believes the Legislature could provide aid for the birthplace in 2010.
When he brought up the idea last year, he did so by trying to amend a bond bill on the House floor and took Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, by surprise. Watson, whose committee writes the bond bills, defeated the amendment, but said he would work with Holland in the coming years to try to provide help for the Tupelo tourism site.
Guyton said members of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation also would work with legislative leaders and reveal their plans for the birthplace.
Holland pointed out numerous tourism sites across the state have received state help, such as the B.B. King Blues Museum in Indianola and the Meridian Arts and Entertainment Center.
“I supported those because they are important to the states, but so is Elvis,” he said.
Rep. Donnie Bell, D-Fulton, said, “This should not be a Lee County issue or even a Northeast Mississippi issue. This is a state thing … Everybody will reap the benefits of this.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal