"It's just a phenomenon," Dow said. "He had a gift, and he used it in the right way."
Graceland's draw has long had a spillover effect on the Memphis economy, with visitors spending money on hotel rooms, dining and other things. In the mid-1980s, travel expenditures in Memphis were estimated at about $1 billion; in 2011, with many more local attractions for tourists to see, travel expenditures exceeded $3 billion, according to the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The idea of opening Graceland to the public came to Priscilla Presley after Elvis' father Vernon died in 1979 and she was thrust into the role of managing the estate. "I realized as it was going on that there really wasn't any money that could support Graceland or any of the people that worked for Elvis that were still there," she said. "I had a decision to make to somehow save Graceland."
She initially reached out to Morgan Maxfield, a Kansas City-based financier, but after he died in a plane crash, his business partner, Soden, stepped in. "The one really clear, passionate voice for 'Don't let go of Graceland, don't let go of the artifacts,' was Priscilla," Soden said.
They met, planned and visited other homes-turned-museums, like Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello and Thomas Edison's home. By 1982, they were ready to open, with Priscilla Presley's idea of keeping everything in the home the same as it was when Elvis was alive still intact.
To augment the $500,000 investment, they pre-sold tickets, generating enough money to buy uniforms for the tour guides. The first month was such a success that they made back the half-million dollars in about 38 days, Soden said. The visitors center was built later with exhibits including his favorite cars and the Lisa Marie, his private plane, plus a cafe and gift shops selling Elvis memorabilia, from T-shirts to bobble-head dolls. Future plans include $50 million in improvements to Elvis Presley Boulevard and other infrastructure near Graceland.
"I'm blown away by the mere fact that it's 30 years," Priscilla Presley said. "It's been incredible to see that the legacy of Elvis is still going strong. We wouldn't have imagined that when it was opened in 1982. Elvis is as popular now as he was then, if not even more."
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