Friday, June 08, 2007

Tourism zone bill gets nod

Commercial Appeal [link]
By Richard Locker

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee legislature approved a bill Thursday and moved close to approving another to help facilitate two major Memphis redevelopment projects: the Graceland area and the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Both measures authorize the city to create tourism development zones (TDZs) at the sites, and define the legal parameters for allowing some local taxes collected within them to be used to help finance the projects. They prohibit the shares of local property and sales taxes earmarked for schools from being abated.

Potential developers of both have said public support in the way of tax abatements or incentives are crucial.

The Graceland project is further along, and the bill approved by the House on Thursday is on its way to Gov. Phil Bredesen to sign into law. Executives of Graceland have announced plans for a $250 million improvement plan to transform the area surrounding Elvis Presley's home.

Included are a new "boutique" convention hotel, possibly a second hotel, a visitors center, new attractions and shops, all designed to make Graceland an even bigger tourist draw. The visitors center is still in the design phase and construction won't start until at least next year, Todd Morgan, Graceland's director of media and creative services, said Thursday.

The entire project could occur within five years, provided local and state governments commit to an unspecified amount of funding, Robert F.X. Sillerman, chief executive of Graceland parent corporation CKX Inc., said last week.

The bill sponsored by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, won House approval 87-5 Thursday. It requires a project of at least $200 million to qualify.

In both cases, the City Council would ultimately decide whether to create the zones and the tax abatements, incentives and in-lieu-of-tax payments.

"I think it's a great economic and community development tool that can be used statewide, although Elvis Presley Enterprises asked for it," Todd said. "The area out there will be enhanced greatly by what they are planning to do."

Graceland's Morgan agreed. "The purpose of seeking the tax break is to enhance our efforts. It's very good news as we move forward with our plans for redeveloping the area around Graceland."

The TDZ bill for the fairgrounds was first proposed by Memphis developer Henry Turley, who hopes to win the city's approval to be the site's master developer. Mayor Willie Herenton later endorsed the bill.

A city committee is studying how to redevelop the 170-acre site, bounded by Central, East Parkway, Southern and Hollywood. No plans are final; no developer, or process for selecting one, has been chosen.

Under Turley's scenario, the project would be a mix of new retailers, open space, athletic fields, the Salvation Army's planned Kroc Community Center, the existing Fairview School and Children's Museum of Memphis, and whatever the city decides to do with Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the Mid-South Coliseum.

That bill won House approval 87-3 but returns to the Senate next week for concurrence with amendments.

Lawmakers amended both bills with requirements for minority contractor participation.

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