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Weinshanker says city, Grizzlies holding up council OK on Graceland expansion

By Updated: May 24, 2019 8:28 PM CT | Published: May 23, 2019 2:59 PM CT

Almost three months after the city administration and Graceland announced they had reached an agreement on the expansion of Graceland’s Whitehaven campus, the deal has stalled before the city council.

The managing partner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Joel Weinshanker, says it is over the 80,000 square feet of soundstages in the development agreement that the Memphis Grizzlies fear could become an arena competing with FedExForum.

The city administration says Weinshanker needs to find common ground with the Grizzlies, who run FedExForum for the city and county.

The comments from Weinshanker came during an interview for The Daily Memphian's "Behind The Headlines," which airs Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. on WKNO-TV.

“Jason Wexler, from the beginning, has run the whole show," Weinshanker said, referring to the Memphis Grizzlies president as well as city chief legal officer Bruce McMullen. "Bruce has basically stated to numerous people that no matter what we do at Graceland, Jason Wexler has to sign off on it.” 

Weinshanker said the proposed soundstages are about  20,000 square feet each and he said fire codes for a building of similar square footage limits occupancy to about 1,700 people. 

“The new fallacy is that we are going to somehow combine these soundstages and make them into the evil arena," he said. "We’ve lived up to every commitment. Everything that we’ve said we would do, we’ve done.”

Wexler declined comment on Weinshanker's remarks.

McMullen, the city's chief legal officer, responded by email through city communications chief Ursula Madden. He  said litigation over the arena issue is likely to be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court before it is resolved.

"And in any event, it will take a long time until it is finally resolved," he said. "I explained to him that it would be preferable and much quicker if EPE could negotiate an agreement with the Grizzlies. To date, however, he has refused to negotiate any agreement with the Grizzlies that would make him accountable for any violation of the agreement."


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The development agreement does not include the 6,200-seat arena Graceland wants to build on its campus. Both the city and the Grizzlies contend the arena would violate the noncompete clause in the forum contract.

The clause forbids the city and county governments from providing any public funding for an arena with more than 5,000 fixed seats.

The question of the noncompete clause is awaiting a ruling from the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and both sides agree that will be where the question of an arena is decided separately from the other parts of Graceland’s expansion in the agreement.

City Council member Patrice Robinson, whose district includes Graceland, oversaw talks between the administration and Graceland that led to the development agreement. She has described the talks as “difficult,” with both sides examining the language closely and each side making lots of changes before it was announced in March.

The agreement is awaiting city council approval, and the council has delayed its vote on the matter four times since March. The latest delay came two weeks ago, when a decision was put off until the last council meeting in June. That delay came after a half-hour, closed attorney-client session between council members and attorney Allan Wade. 


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In a previous interview, Strickland said he had heard the council was delaying its approval of the agreement over concerns about the soundstages and the noncompete clause.

Weinshanker said the new soundstages would be used for film and television production.

They are part of a list of new developments at Graceland for which the administration agreed to help provide incentives, including sales tax and property tax rebates and upping the draw Graceland gets on a tax increment financing – or TIF – district that makes up the Graceland campus.

Weinshanker raised the possibility of litigation to hold the city to its pledge even without city council approval.

“The city, who has a legal obligation to try to help push this through, is actually pushing it back. They keep on changing our agreement because the agreement has to get more specific,” Weinshanker said. "They ask us for a change. We make a small change. And then the city council -- the part that's being controlled by the mayor, basically has said, 'Now that it's changed, we have to push it back.'"


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He suggested the delays in a council vote are connected to the October city elections.

“They probably intend to push it back past the election," Weinshanker said, adding that people would be upset if they knew what was going on.

"… I’ve had numerous meetings with community leaders who are all just as fed up as I am,” Weinshanker said. “The city doesn’t have a direct excuse.”

The administration disputes his reading of public opinion.

"According to council members who represent Whitehaven, the proposed development has mixed reviews," the email response reads.

"That is why we insisted that the agreement with the city for the TIF increase have a clause giving Whitehaven residents preference for the jobs EPE keeps promising to create," the statement adds. "We look forward to EPE taking any action to actually move forward on its promises."

Weinshanker's interview comes ahead of a Saturday soft opening of Graceland’s 80,000-square-foot exhibition space, which drew scrutiny earlier in the process of outlining the expansion plans. The plans also include a 500-room hotel and the Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment complex across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion.

Weinshanker also said he is talking with Shelby County Schools officials about using the old Graves Elementary School in Whitehaven for a vocational training program for high school juniors and seniors. The school would be part of his plan for manufacturing in Whitehaven that is included in the development agreement.

“All of this is going to be basically paid for by us. We’re not looking for any money,” he said of the school conversion. “We are not looking for any partnerships. We may get some federal dollars. But (from) Memphis and Shelby County, not a dime.”

Strickland has said Weinshanker could move ahead with the manufacturing part of the plan at any time. But Weinshanker contends the city wants Graceland to apply for a PILOT – payment in lieu of taxes – incentive before starting on the project.

“It wasn’t our idea. It was their idea. We have this in writing,” he said. “Every one of these projects is shovel-ready. I had to move some of the jobs somewhere else because we couldn’t wait any longer.”

The administration's response said the PILOT pursuit was what Graceland wanted.

"There is no reason that EPE cannot move forward to develop the manufacturing/distribution facilities and in fact it needs to do so to meet the deadlines in the agreement regarding those facilities," reads the response from the administration.

Topics

Joel Weinshanker Graceland Jason Wexler Jim Strickland Behind The Headlines
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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