The thing about Stone Mountain, the city, is that a lot of folks don’t really know it exists.
Or if they do, perhaps they figure you’re talking about the unincorporated area that covers a sizable swath of southern DeKalb County. Or they lump the city in with its namesake, that nearby hunk of state-owned granite where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn and 90-foot Confederates are carved into the mountainside.
Beverly Jones wants to change all that.
The newly elected mayor — the first Black woman to fill that role — wants to rebrand and revitalize the small town where she’s lived for a quarter century. And she says that in order to do that, the city must stake its own claim.
Does she want the city and its businesses to capitalize on the millions of visitors that stop by the mountain and the park each year? Sure. But she also wants to make clear that the city — which has its own obstacles and history, good and bad — stands by itself. That it’s a destination, not a pass-through. A community interested in moving forward.
None of that is a small undertaking. But the mayor may just have momentum on her side.
“We have to be a town that is progressive,” Jones, a former councilwoman who was sworn in earlier this month, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I see us moving that way. I see lots of changes. And I’m very, very excited about it.”
Credit: Steve Schaefer
Credit: Steve Schaefer
‘The next level’
Stone Mountain is, in fact, a city that’s existed since 1839. It sits just to the west of the mountain and the well-visited expanse of parkland.
There are about 6,700 residents, more than three-quarters of which are Black.
The downtown area — known as Stone Mountain Village — has certainly seen better days. There are shops, but many historic storefronts sit vacant. Lightpole signage promoting the city is a mishmash of old and new. A prominently placed gazebo, at some point converted to an ATM, sits in disrepair.
There are, though, signs of new life.
Gilly Brew Bar — a trendy, Black-owned coffee shop — opened a few years ago in what’s still known as “the Mayor’s House,” a two-story structure built by enslaved people for Stone Mountain’s first leader. The shop’s arrival helped lay the groundwork for other new businesses to move in.
Stoned Pizza Kitchen and Cherokee Rose, a sort of upscale barbecue joint, draw regular crowds, as does Outrun Brewing Company, a new ‘80s-themed spot for craft beer. The Vibrary, a unique wine shop and bookstore combo, opened last year and has garnered positive press.
“I think Stone Mountain is in a real interesting place,” said Jelani Linder, chair of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “I think we’re at a place where we can definitely see things go to the next level, but it’s still kind of in that incubator stage.”
Daniel Brown, the co-founder of Gilly Brew Bar, is not from Stone Mountain but said he felt a calling to help build the community. He admits its been a bit of a struggle, but is encouraged by other recently arriving businesses.
And the election of a new mayor, too.
“I think the missing element was just the city leadership,” Brown said. “So I’m really excited and hopeful, I’m hoping that this new mayor could implement a lot of programs or something to help this community thrive. Otherwise it’s just gonna be remembered for what it’s always been remembered for.”
A city, not a mountain
To be clear, Stone Mountain’s local government places most administrative powers with the city manager. Jones — who replaced Patricia Wheeler, a woman who served as mayor at various points across four decades — votes on issues only in the event of a tie and is largely a figurehead.
But the new mayor, whose day job involves working as a behavioral and mental health counselor, sees her role as trying to unite an often divided City Council. To make progress, she says, everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.
But what, exactly, is that direction?
A new master plan approved in late 2020 calls for creating a new identity that doesn’t “marry” the city to Stone Mountain Park — but also for considering the creation of a shuttle or trolley line between the two. It suggests building new gateways and hanging new signage to create a better sense of place. Updates to the facades of some historic storefronts couldn’t hurt either, the plan said.
Property and rents in the village are already relatively cheap, and the city boasts an existing street grid that many other communities have to try and recreate, said Linder, the development authority chairman.
He and Jones both credited the businesses that have arrived in recent years for forging their own paths. They built the mojo that the city must now capitalize on.
Said the mayor: “I don’t understand why people think change can’t happen.”