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Permanent collection traces auto history to late 1800s

New museum should boost local tourism, economy

TUPELO — When the $66 million facelift project in the Tupelo Central Business District is complete, it will include a new $3.5-million auto museum that business leaders say will boost tourism coffers and the local economy.

“It will be the single most important development for the future of tourism since the birth of Elvis,” said David P. Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo. “It will draw folks from all over the world because of the uniqueness of the collection. It would be impossible to replicate the cars and the great Frank Spain car stories.”

Linda Butler, executive director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the automobile museum will have “a very big tourism impact” on the area.

“Along with the international attractions of Elvis Presley that we already have, we’re excited about the tourism opportunities the automobile museum will bring, and we’ll begin promoting it soon.”

Located east of the BancorpSouth Center in downtown Tupelo, the 120,000- square-foot auto museum will permanently house approximately 150 cars valued at nearly $6 million owned by Tupelo native Frank Spain.

“My interest in automobiles began when I was a young boy, mainly because the girls liked them,” Spain said, with a laugh.

“I’m an engineer by profession, and the collection started off by building and rebuilding cars I was interested in, but the project got totally out of hand, and here we are,” he added, with a chuckle.

Spain’s collection will include automobiles that represent nearly every year since 1896, including one of only 53 Tuckers, manufactured post-World War II; a Lincoln Continental from the 1960s that Elvis Presley purchased as a gift for the police chief in Denver to whom he owed a favor, along with the cancelled check to the dealer; and Spain’s favorite: a cream-colored 1948 Jaguar Mark IV with leather interior and green roof that he says “holds little economic value, but is the epitome of what the 1930s cars looked like.”

Spain, who drives a 30-year-old Mercedes convertible, purchased a dozen cars from the estate of the late Bill Harrah, a casino magnate who owned the largest automobile collection in the U.S.

“After Bill Harrah died, his collection was dispersed to the four winds,” Spain said. “I didn’t want to see this collection split up, so we set up the Tupelo Auto Museum Foundation, which will own the building and the collection, in such a fashion that the cars cannot be sold separately.”

Spain said new automobiles would probably not be added on a regular basis, even though some older “lesser liked” models might be traded out.

“The automotive museum business has gotten to a place where it’s primarily a used car dealership,” he said. “Almost everyone has an auction at least once a year. One reason is because museums are expensive to maintain, with overhead and payroll, and most do not manage to meet their overhead from entrance charges alone.”

Debbie Woodrich Hall, executive director of The United Way of Northeast Mississippi in Tupelo, called the collection “truly incredible.”

“Having these automobiles available for visitors to the Tupelo area to view should be a drawing card for us,” she said. “One of the things we lack is a ‘fun’ thing for families to do while they are in town for conventions, etc. Having this museum and other things like it should help in our trying to draw more conventions to Tupelo. And that, of course, helps the economy.”

Jim High, assistant manager to the Main Street association in Tupelo, said that annually more than 100,000 tourists continue to make the pilgrimage to Elvis’ birthplace.

“Right now, we’re getting ready for the third annual Elvis Presley festival — this year, it will be held June 1 to 3 — and even though we won’t have the automobile collection available for the public to see this year, it will certainly be a boost next year,” he said. “Elvis fans know how generous he was, buying cars for business associates and friends. If he really got good service from a waitress, he might give her a car. So fans will want to see this one he bought for the police chief.”

When the four-phase Tupelo Fairgrounds Redevelopment Initiative is complete, the city of Tupelo will also reap a new city hall and convention center. The first phase, which involves building the city hall and civic center, is well underway. The second phase primarily involves the building of office space. Phase III is the retail and entertainment area and Phase IV is the residential component.

“The convention center, hotel and auto museum present an excellent tourist draw and urban mixed-use community,” said Dave McComas, vice president of real estate for the Henry Turley Co. in Memphis, the marketing firm selected for the project.

High said the redevelopment project would “effectively double the size of downtown Tupelo and add nearly 60 acres of raw land to the tax rolls.”

“Rather than doing it piecemeal, this planned project will really boost our economy, and the auto museum is an integral part of that,” he said.

Even retailers are counting on increased sales when the downtown development project is complete.

“Any additional entertainment will drive — no pun intended — tourism and retail sales,” said Jeff D. Snyder, general manager of The Mall at Barnes Crossing in Tupelo.

Spain’s collection is currently housed in a nearby warehouse, which will be torn down after the cars are moved to their permanent home. The museum, currently under construction, should be open by next spring. Hours and ticket prices have not yet been determined.

“The community is indebted to Mayor Larry Otis and the Tupelo City Council for their strong support on facilitation of this endeavor,” Rumbarger said. “The whole dream of thousands of visitors could not be achieved without Frank Spain and his visionary graciousness.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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