Makeover Planned to Improve Business Appeal of Memphis Airport Area

Business and civic leaders are openly saying what many Memphians have whispered for years, that the Airport/Brooks Road corridor - home to the city's economic engine - is an embarrassment and could even be an impediment to further growth.

Larry Cox, chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, agrees.

"What goes on around the airport and how it looks has an impact," he said. "The airport and the area around it is the official front door to the community and region. If it doesn't look attractive and have the right environment, for the people who are visiting us or considering investing in the community, then we're all losers."

During a recent tour of Smith & Nephew's campus, City Council members were told that hotels and other businesses interested in the area have backed off because of the existing conditions.

Nearby Graceland brings an estimated 600,000 visitors to the area every year.

While the neighborhood around Graceland is middle- to upper-middle class, the drive from the airport to Graceland - particularly along heavily traveled routes like Brooks and Elvis Presley - is dotted with empty, outdated and decaying buildings.

When Robert F.X. Sillerman, who paid $100 million for an 85 percent stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises in late 2004, visited Memphis last year to tout his vision for an improved Graceland, he wanted assurances that the city would do its part to improve the area.

"It needs to be because we have around 600,000 people, for the most part getting off at the interstate at Brooks and Elvis Presley, making their way down to Graceland," said Jack Soden, president and CEO of EPE. "Every step of the way they have to be going, 'Surely we're lost.'

"A lot of them have this vision of Tara and they're coming down Elvis Presley Boulevard saying, 'It can't be here.' But, you know, Graceland tends to save the day."

EPE has been buying property along Elvis Presley Boulevard in anticipation of making millions of dollars worth of improvements to the area.

"We've got an ownership group with very deep pockets and significant intention to invest in the future of the Elvis legacy," said Soden. "If we make Graceland as big a draw as we think it can be, we are going to suffer if we don't control the doughnut of land around us."

Piecemeal efforts have been made to rehabilitate the area before, including a Brooks Road task force created by the Memphis Regional Chamber in 1998, but stakeholders said this could be the beginning of a sustained effort.

"We've been working and made some incremental benefits," said Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Chamber. "What we've realized is we've got to step it up a notch."

"We've got to have senior levels of leadership in business, the community and government of the same mind and committed," he said. "It's kind of like the Brooks Road task force on steroids."

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