Whitehaven boasts a high rate of home-ownership and is the "front door" for Memphis tourists, but the area has struggled with attracting fresh developments and investment. Now with multi-million dollar projects from Elvis Presley Enterprises in the works, community leaders are optimistic about what's next for the neighborhood.
To outsiders, Whitehaven is known as the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland
But to those who call the southwest Memphis community home, Whitehaven is much more than a tourist destination. Whitehaven could be considered the city’s epicenter of middle class African-American life.
Chad Bowman is part of an advisory committee put together by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. that includes a number of Whitehaven stakeholders. He sees so much potential in the community, but some obstacles to the neighborhood’s success that need to be overcome.
“Historically Whitehaven has had one of the highest per capita income for African-Americans in the state,” Bowman said. “There are a lot of mature homeowners, and a high homeowner occupancy rate. … You have a lot of well-established members of the community who live in the area. But one of the problems is they have disposable income to support restaurants and businesses but there aren’t any.”
Dexter Muller, Senior Adviser for Community Development at the Greater Memphis Chamber
, said there is a pent-up demand for more businesses to serve the middle class community.
“That part of Whitehaven has been a stronghold of good housing stock, people who have wanted to continue to live there,” he said. “What they’ve needed is upper-scale restaurants and national chains. They’ve been working to recruit it but haven’t had the impetus to make it happen.”
Could the saving grace be on the way, and it all come in the name of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?
Help from the King
Elvis Presley Enterprises is investing some $135 million in Whitehaven, and Muller said he believes those moves will spur more growth for the community.
Graceland is building a $90 million, 450-room resort hotel that will open in fall 2016. The Guest House at Graceland will be located along Elvis Presley Boulevard north of the Graceland mansion. In addition, Elvis Presley Enterprises will build a $30 million to $40 million entertainment complex across the street from Graceland.
“For Elvis Presley Enterprises to make that investment in Whitehaven is awesome but it’s also a no-brainer,” Bowman said. “Investments like that are catalytic. They took the first step. We hope with that and after improvement of the infrastructure of Elvis Presley Boulevard we’ll find others wanting to make those investments.”
What Elvis Presley Enterprises is doing in Whitehaven actually is extensive. That entertainment complex will replace the outdated Graceland Plaza that serves as a mix of museums, retail, food and starting point for tours of the mansion across the street.
It’s partially made possible thanks to an investment of sorts by the state of Tennessee. In April, the state approved the city’s request for a tourism development zone for the Graceland campus. In May, the Memphis City Council approved a 5 percent Graceland tourism surcharge on all items bought on the 120-acre campus. It was the final public step in the process to make the redevelopment a reality.
Elvis Presley Boulvard
The city and state also are spending more than $40 million in various projects that will improve Elvis Presley Boulevard between Interstate 55 and the state line.
James Robinson is the CEO of Methodist South Hospital
and one of more than 20 members of the Whitehaven Redevelopment Plan Committee. As leader of the community’s hospital, he is invested in the future of Whitehaven.
To him, it all starts with Elvis.
“If you think about Memphis and what draws people here, we have 600,000 people a year come to Graceland,” he said. “From our standpoint Elvis Presley Boulevard should be the best looking street in the city.”
Robinson relayed a childhood memory of one of the rules his mother had in the house.
“She had a room we couldn’t mess up,” he said. “It was for special guests only. That’s what Elvis Presley Boulevard should be. We should want to put our best foot forward for our visitors. They come here and get an experience and if they don’t feel safe they likely won’t come back. It’s important for the economic wellbeing of the city to take care of Whitehaven.”
Beyond sprucing up the appearance of the community with a focus on its “front door” near Graceland, a vital mission is caring for the neighborhood’s residents. Methodist Hospital plays a key role in that mission.
Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare is renovating the Methodist South Hospital emergency room, the third-busiest in Memphis. The $8.7 million project will more than double the current 9,950-square-foot department to 22,750 square feet when it’s completed in late 2016.
Methodist South Hospital
“Our ER department is so busy because there are not a lot of primary care doctor visits in the community,” Robinson said. “A lot of people are getting primary care in our ER. We need more access to health care in this community.”
The current emergency room is designed to handle 35,000 people annually but it sees upwards of 60,000. The configuration is inefficient with a 100-yard separation between the main emergency and the non-acute departments. The renovation will bring them closer together as well as provide for more patient privacy.
There are real health concerns in Whitehaven, Robinson said.
“If Memphis is the belt for diabetes, Whitehaven is the buckle,” he said. “We have a number of patients with diabetes. It’s a sedentary lifestyle but we also live in a food desert. There aren’t healthy options. It’s critical. This is a vibrant community, a large community. But if you’re burdened with chronic health issues and there aren’t great options to address those, you’ll never reach your potential. It’s a stressor on the larger community.”
The hospital works to serve Whitehaven’s health needs before people get to the point of needing treatment. It starts with community health fairs held twice a year when the hospital talks about health alternatives and offers cooking demonstrations. A Monday farmers’ market also is held from July to October.
Muller listed Methodist South Hospital as one of the anchors along with Graceland that keeps Whitehaven vital. The larger area, though, has other major anchors with Smith & Nephew and Medtronic on the north, and Memphis International Airport, BNSF Railway and other industrial properties to the east.
“I think the key thing is you have strong anchors that aren’t going anywhere,” Muller said. “A lot of communities across the country you see in real trouble. They didn’t have strong anchors. An anchor can be a university, a hospital, a large business or tourist attraction. What you see in this area … is way out of proportion just to serve Memphis. And you see national companies that have chosen to be in that area. You have these large national corporations that have seen the attributes of Memphis’ logistics system and you put all of these together and you have powerful anchors.”
At one time, Southland Mall and Southbrook Mall would have been considered community anchors. But the national retail landscape is changing. Macy’s announced in 2014 it would close its 150,000-square-foot store at Southland Mall, one of 14 nationwide. It opened in 1966 as Goldsmith’s.
Today, the enclosed mall model is giving way to a mix of lifestyle centers such as Collierville’s Carriage Crossing on one end of the spectrum and the new Tanger Outlet Mall in Southaven that will open later this year on the other end.
Danny Buring, Managing Partner and Principal Broker of the Memphis office of The Shopping Center Group, said today’s retail centers are focused on large regional areas such as Wolfchase, Southaven, East Memphis and Collierville. The community retail centers such as the malls in Whitehaven aren’t part of the current model.
“There was a time in the ’60s and ’70s when neighborhood centers were being built but now it’s the big super regional places,” he said. “I think today people will drive out of their way to go to the new shinier shopping centers. And in Whitehaven they are driving by the mall to go to Southaven where it’s bigger and shinier.”
There are many other community anchors for Whitehaven to depend on. The next step, Muller said, is leveraging all of those positive anchors. He said the investment Elvis Presley Enterprises is making in the community could increase what is already 600,000 visitors annually to more than 1 million. And those visitors to Whitehaven will dine in new restaurants and stay in a new hotel.
The hope is that move by Elvis Presley Enterprises will show other national restaurant companies that there is much to consider with Whitehaven investments.
“We need to leverage those anchors and fill in the gaps between them,” Muller said. “There are gaps in restaurants and gaps in the airport with passenger service. We have infrastructure that needs to be built. And the focus is leveraging all of that growth.”