Stone Mountain Memorial Association finds new company to manage park attractions

Eventually, the Stone Mountain Action Coalition wants at least the consideration of modifying or removing the giant Confederate carving that looms over the park. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

This story has been updated. 

Stone Mountain, GA — The Stone Mountain Memorial Association on Oct. 25 approved starting negotiations with a company to manage attractions at the park.

The SMMA board intends to hire Thrive Attractions Management LLC. The company will be responsible for managing the park’s various attractions. It will be replacing the park’s current management company, Silver Dollar City – Stone Mountain Park, which is owned by Herschend Family Entertainment.

The SMMA board at its Oct. 25 voted to accept Thrive Attractions as the finalist and begin negotiations with the company.

To see a copy of Thrive’s proposal, click here.

As part of the proposed agreement, Thrive would receive 2 percent of gross revenues from the hotel and 3 percent of gross revenues for all other areas. Under the terms of the agreement, the Memorial Association would get 100 percent of the first $8 million.

“This allows SMMA to retain consistent cashflow to fund its operations,” the proposal from Thrive says.

After the first $8 million, Thrive would get an incentive of 20 percent.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens said, “As we let this RFP during a challenging climate for travel and hospitality and the COVID-19  pandemic, we were pleased to receive a response from a known entity with deep experience as well as personnel already familiar with Stone Mountain Park. Our board and staff will begin negotiations immediately.”

After the meeting, Stephens said four companies expressed interest, but Thrive was the only one to submit a proposal.

“I think there were two issues,” Stephens said. “The primary issue and the most important is the COVID pandemic has caused a lot of tourism companies about being reticent about entering into new ventures. So, they were reluctant to bid. The second thing is, the Confederacy issue. We admit and acknowledge the Confederacy issue is something that has to be addressed and we’re in the process of trying to do that.”

The agreement with Herschend Family Entertainment ends July 31, 2022.

Rev. Abraham Mosley, chair of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said, “In Thrive, we have chosen continuity, experience and an unmatched depth of knowledge and know-how. The SMMA has a proven track record of working with the current management team for the better good of the community. I’m confident that we will build on that success.”

According to SMMA, Thrive Attractions is led by Michael Dombrowski who has served as vice president and general manager of Stone Mountain Park for Herschend Family Entertainment since 2014. Crescent Hotels and Resorts will partner with Thrive to take over the park’s hotel, resort and conference center.

Dombroski has developed several of the park’s biggest moneymakers, including Snow Mountain and Stone Mountain Christmas, as well as adding attractions like Sky Hike and Dinosaurs!, according to SMMA.

It’s the latest change for the park, as the park’s leaders grapple with the park’s prominent Confederate symbols that are driving away community partners.

Marriott, the park’s primary hotel and conference center, plans to pull out of the park next year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. The AJC notes that Coca-Cola’s sponsorship was removed from the park’s website.

The park has faced financial trouble recently. COVID-19 and controversy surrounding the symbols at the park – it’s hard to say which was the bigger factor — ate into its revenues. Year to date, the park is reporting $1.83 million in revenue losses. According to SMMA, its fortunes have improved of late. The park reported high attendance at the recent Highland Games and the Stone Mountain Pumpkin Festival.

To deal with the Confederacy controversy, park officials have proposed numerous changes but haven’t considered the possibility of removing the carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the side of the mountain.

Stephens said that there are no plans to remove the carving or end maintenance of it.

“Georgia law is specific that we have to do certain things, and we’re going to follow the law,” he said.

Stephens acknowledged that shaking the park’s association with the Confederacy will be hard to accomplish as long as the carving remains intact. But he noted the SMMA plans to issue another RFP for the development and construction of a new museum exhibit in Memorial Hall that will involve “sharing an honest and factual account of the history of the Stone Mountain Memorial Carving and monuments.”

“That’s why in the museum exhibit we’re doing, we’re going to address the true and accurate story about the carving, what it means, how it came about,” he said. “We’re going to address it specifically.”

He said SMMA hasn’t done anything recently as far as maintenance, aside from inspecting the carving to make sure it’s still intact and won’t break apart, potentially injuring someone in the process.

The museum isn’t the only thing the parks leaders are doing to try and distance itself from the Confederacy. SMMA has changed the park’s logo and is considering changing the names of roads around the park named after Confederate figures.

Other ideas SMMA has considered include:

– Moving the Confederate flags at the Stone Mountain Park walk up trail to the base of Stone Mountain at Valor Park “where they will be preserved in a place of prominence.” Renderings have been done on relocating the Flag Plaza to Valor Park, under the carving, a spokesperson for SMMA says.

– Seeking a federal historic designation for the Washington W. King Bridge. The bridge was originally constructed in Athens, Ga., crossing the Oconee River and connected parts of the city with the University of Georgia campus in downtown Athens. Washington W. King and his family were prominent African American bridge builders, a press release from the Stone Mountain Memorial Association says. SMMA currently is awaiting a response from the National Register of Historic Places regarding the bridge.

Members of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, who have advocated for an expedient removal of Confederate symbols at the park, weighed in on the new management company.

“I think it’s exciting that Stone Mountain park has new management, but I think it’s incumbent upon the new management to make changes because Stone Mountain Park is all about white supremacy and celebration of the Confederacy,” said Bona Allen, who is one of the leaders of SMAC.

He said that SMAC wants the park to be successful and thinks the only way it can be successful is by being inclusive. That means repudiating the park’s connections to the Confederacy.

Michelle Colbert, a historian who also is a member of SMAC, said park’s reverence for the Confederacy has no basis in history.

“There’s no historical connection to the Civil War, the Antebellum period or the Confederacy in Stone Mountain Park,” she said. “There was not a battle fought there. It’s fabricated in the mid-twentieth century during the peak of mass resistance and Civil Rights.”

Allen said it was “interesting” that the new management company is run by someone affiliated with the previous management company. “That’s the only way Stone Mountain Park could find a management company?”

Grady Vickery, with the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, attended the meeting and is not supportive of any changes at the park that would detract from what he sees as its mission to honor the Confederacy. That includes a museum contextualizing the carving.

“The charter of this park is to memorialize forever the men who served with valor and their service to the Confederate States of America, which was a foreign country between 1861 and 1865,” he said. “That’s why all the monuments say 1861 to 1865. The reason why that’s important is that this park was chartered so that anything presented must fit this time period.”

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