Stone Mountain Park board names finalist for new business partner

Memorial Hall (foreground) and Confederate Memorial Carving (background) at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (HYOSUB SHIN/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Memorial Hall (foreground) and Confederate Memorial Carving (background) at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (HYOSUB SHIN/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Thrive Attractions is a newly created company run by current general manager

Stone Mountain Park’s longtime private business partner is leaving — but a familiar face appears poised to stick around and continue operating attractions at Georgia’s most visited, and most divisive, destination.

Herschend Family Entertainment has run popular attractions like the laser show and the Skylift, as well as special events, shops and convention space, since they were first privatized at Stone Mountain Park in the 1990s. The Peachtree Corners-based company, though, plans to pull out by next summer, citing decreased revenues and “protests and division” fueled by the park’s ubiquitous Confederate imagery as factors.

With that departure looming, the state authority tasked with overseeing Stone Mountain issued in July a formal call for proposals from businesses interested in taking over the role.

And on Monday, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board voted to select Thrive Attractions Management LLC as its finalist for the job.

The twist?

Thrive Attractions was the only company to submit a formal bid, officials said — and it’s a newly created firm led by Michael Dombrowski, who has served as Herschend’s vice president and general manager for Stone Mountain Park for the last seven years.

ExplorePHOTOS: Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park

Memorial association leaders said Dombrowski’s “deep experience” and “unmatched depth of knowledge” made Thrive the right partner. Press releases credited Dombrowski with turning negative cash flow at the park into six consecutive (pre-pandemic) years of profit, in part through developing popular attractions like Snow Mountain and Stone Mountain Christmas.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dombrowski said he loves Stone Mountain Park and the idea of it no longer being part of his life was “personally heartbreaking.” The Tucker resident created Thrive specifically for the purpose of seeking the contract he’s now poised to win.­­

“This is a community of people that I love,” Dombrowski said.

He said that, later Monday afternoon, he planned to inform all current Herschend employees at Stone Mountain that they’d have a job with Thrive if they wanted it.

The deal isn’t finalized yet, but Thrive’s selection as the sole finalist paves the way for more extensive contract negotiations with the memorial association to begin.

According to the submitted bid, which was acquired by the AJC on Monday, Thrive would sign a 10-year management contract with Stone Mountain Park. The option for two five-year extensions would also be included.

Base fees collected by Thrive would be 2% of gross revenue from the park’s hotels 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 also commit to dedicating 40% of its cashflow back into revenue-generating capital investments at the park.

Memorial association CEO Bill Stephens said four companies originally expressed interest in the management contract, but Thrive was the only one to submit a formal bid.

“As we [issued the request for proposals] during a challenging climate for travel and hospitality and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stephens said, “we were pleased to receive a response from a known entity with deep experience as well as personnel already intimately familiar with Stone Mountain Park.”

Herschend’s current agreement with the park expires July 31, 2022. But Dombrowksi said the transition to Thrive — which will operate under a management contract, not a lease like Herschend — has the potential to happen sooner.

Herschend’s departure also means Marriott, which operates the park’s primary hotel and conference center, will be leaving.

Thrive’s proposal includes partnering with Crescent Hotels and Resorts, a national management firm, to take over operations of the Evergreen Resort and Conference Center and the Stone Mountain Inn.

ExploreWhat 'telling the truth' about Stone Mountain might look like

Management companies have little, if any, direct control over Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park. They have no role in current initiatives aimed at toning down the park’s connections with the Lost Cause.

But Dombrowski said he “absolutely” supports memorial association efforts like creating a new museum exhibit exploring the ugly history of the park and the massive mountainside carving of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

ExploreStone Mountain Park seeks pitches for creation of truth-telling exhibit

The memorial association planned to issue a call for museum companies interested in physically creating that exhibit Monday afternoon.

“I’ve always told our employees on a regular basis, for anything dark that’s ever happened here, we’re gonna bury it with a thousand tons of love,” Dombrowski said.

“We can’t do anything about a rock,” he added. “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, an activist group pressuring the memorial association to make major changes to the park’s 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.”