The King's Castle

James McLaren on overseeing the expansion of Graceland

Published in 2019 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine

By Jim Walsh on November 7, 2019



It’s one of James McLaren’s favorite words, used to describe almost any project he’s working on. McLaren uses it, for example, when discussing his latest client—the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

“I was an Elvis fan,” he says. “Getting to work on this project at Graceland really means something. … He was the catalytic person in changing music. Blues and rock ’n’ roll and soul all came out of here—Memphis.”

A partner since 2006 at Adams and Reese, McLaren is part of the economic development team overseeing the expansion of Graceland. “I’ve had the privilege of being involved in most of the largest economic development projects in Memphis over the last 30 years,” says McLaren, a married father of three whose previous projects include AutoZone Park. Graceland, he says, “was a chance to do something that not only benefits the community as a whole, but it has been catalytic in the redevelopment of the Whitehaven neighborhood.”

With U.S. Route 51 (Elvis Presley Boulevard) cutting through it, the Whitehaven neighborhood of South Memphis is historically low-income, currently boasting a largely African American population of 50,000. The latest updates in the Graceland project include expanded retail and exhibit space, 30 guest cabins, a relocated RV park, airplane hangars, updates to existing rooms and another 150 new rooms at the mansion. Developers have promised the expansion will bring 1,000 new jobs to the area.

“Graceland is one of the most important tourist attractions, if not the most important tourist attraction, in the state of Tennessee,” says McLaren, of the second-most visited house in the United States—after the White House. Half a million people visit Graceland every year. 

“Over 90% of the visitors are from outside of Shelby County,” he says. “And people don’t just come to go to Graceland; they see other sights as well. The latest economic development analysis study we had done in 2017 says that, on the average, over the next 30 years, about $300 million a year in economic benefit to the city will result from Graceland. There really isn’t anything like it.”

McLaren got the Graceland gig on the recommendation of his partner in Nashville, Dale Allen, who has done work for Elvis Presley Enterprises for a number of years. “I structured the incentive package and the financing for the project, and worked with Elvis Presley Enterprises to get all of the approvals that were required for the incentives and closed the financing of the different phases of the project,” says McLaren. 

“The original approval was on three phases,” he adds. “The first was construction of an archive studio behind the mansion; a small project, approximately $1 million. The second phase was construction of a 450-room, four-star hotel located on the campus just north of the mansion. Phase three was construction of 200,000 to 300,000 square feet of retail pre-function space, museum space, and a big soundstage.”

The rebirth hasn’t come without roadblocks. In a case currently on appeal, Elvis Presley Enterprises and the City of Memphis disagree on whether building a 6,200-seat arena will violate the city’s agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies, whose FedExForum is located just 8 miles from Graceland. “The core issue is that there is a use-and-operations agreement for the FedExForum that limits the city’s ability to build and operate competing facilities with the FedExForum,” says McLaren. “The question is whether what we’re trying to do today would be considered a competing facility.”

McLaren notes that the average visitor to Graceland is younger than the average visitor to Prince’s Paisley Park in Minnesota. That suggests the world’s fascination with Elvis hasn’t ebbed.

“You put a 450-room four-star hotel next to Graceland in the Whitehaven neighborhood. … Memphis hadn’t had a hotel of that size built in 30 years,” says McLaren. “We’re still working through the future expansion and getting approvals for that piece of the project, but it’s always rewarding to see the projects you’ve worked on come to fruition and see what they’re doing to change a neighborhood.” 

He talks up going to an exhibition building event at Graceland last summer. “There were people in that building who I know had not been in Whitehaven for 20 years or more,” he says. “It’s having a catalytic effect.”

We All Will Be Received in Graceland: A few facts about the famous Memphis Property:

  • Construction began: 1939
  • Original owners: Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Moore
  • Named for: Grace Toof, Mrs. Moore’s aunt
  • Original mansion size: 10,266 square feet
  • Current mansion size: 17,552 square feet
  • Elvis purchase date and price: March 25, 1957 for $102,500
  • Added to American National Register of Historic Places: 1991
  • Annual visitors: 600,000

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