Only 1 bidder to run Georgia’s Confederate-themed park

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (AP) — The only bidder for management of Georgia’s Confederate-themed, state-owned Stone Mountain Park is a new firm created by an official of the company that’s pulling out, the park’s governing board said Monday.

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association board voted Monday to choose Thrive Attractions Management LLC as the finalist to run the park near Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

That opens the way for negotiations with Thrive, led by Michael Dombrowski — Stone Mountain Park’s general manager for seven years as a vice president of Herschend Family Entertainment.

Management companies have little, if any, direct control over Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park, and state law bars any change to the enormous mountainside carving of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Such companies also have no role in the board’s current initiatives to loosen ties to the Confederacy, such as dropping the carving from its logo and moving Confederate flags from a busy walking trail.

Dombrowski said he “absolutely” supports such efforts, which also include creating a new museum exhibit about the park’s and carving’s history and long ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

“We can’t do anything about a rock,” he said. “But we can do something about the living human beings and the community that’s in front of that rock. The way we love our employees, the way we welcome our community, the way we invite our community.”

Bona Allen is a leader with the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, which has been pushing for major changes to Confederate tributes. He said Monday that he hopes the new management company will encourage them, too.

“Stone Mountain Action Coalition wants Stone Mountain Park to be successful,” Allen said. “And the only way we think it can be successful is to be inclusive, which means get rid of the Confederacy and everything that it stands for.”

Dombrowski told the newspaper that with Herschend soon leaving the park, he was heartbroken that Stone Mountain might not be part of his life. That’s what prompted him to create Thrive to bid on the new contract.

Herschend’s lease ends July 31. The company has said it will leave, citing decreased revenues and “protests and division” fueled by the park’s Confederate imagery.

Herschend has run attractions like the laser show and the Skylift, as well as special events, shops and convention space, since the 1990s.

The authority in July made a formal call for proposals from would-be operators for the park, which lies below the world’s largest Confederate monument — an enormous mountainside carving of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee..

Four companies expressed interest but only Thrive made a bid, said memorial association CEO Bill Stephens.

Dombrowski’s “deep experience” and “unmatched depth of knowledge” made Thrive the right partner, officials said.

Press releases credited Dombrowski, who developed popular attractions including Snow Mountain and Stone Mountain Christmas, with turning a money-losing park into one that made a profit for the six years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dombrowski told the newspaper that all current Herschend employees at Stone Mountain can stay if they want to.

Thrive’s proposal calls for a 10-year management contract with an option for two five-year extensions, the newspaper reported.

Thrive’s base fee would be 2% of gross hotel revenues and 3% from all other areas. The memorial association would keep all earnings for the first $8 million accrued each year; Thrive would receive a 20% incentive fee for anything above that.

The memorial association would put 40% of its cash flow into revenue-generating capital investments at the park.

The handoff could come before Herschend’s lease runs out, Dombrowksi said.

Marriott operates the park’s primary hotel and conference center, but Thrive’s proposal includes partnering with Crescent Hotels and Resorts, a national management firm.