The tour of what Jelani Linder and other enthused locals are calling the “new Stone Mountain Village” begins on a chilly Friday afternoon, at a local joint opened in 2018 called Stoned Pizza Kitchen, where every pun is intended. Linder, a Coldwell Banker Commercial Metro Brokers agent, is an unabashed ambassador for the village and a seasoned tour guide. He holds a masters degree in urban planning from the University of Georgia, serves as Stone Mountain’s Downtown Development Authority chair, and recently bought one of the city’s few new houses nearby with his wife, Shani. Before all of that, though, Linder grew up in another DeKalb County city, Decatur, when it was hardscrabble—back when his pals considered venturing into tony Oakhurst dangerous and gentrifying Kirkwood “a sin.”
Linder sees in Stone Mountain Village the next hip place, a refuge for Atlanta’s priced-out populace, and to prove it, we trek down East Mountain Street to—what else—the renovation project that’s becoming the city’s first big brewery.
“Once people can get over the perception, they get it,” Linder says of his city, en route. “It’s like a cult here, I’ll be honest with you, when people buy in. The enthusiasm, the excitement.”
Scheduled to open in March in a long-abandoned Pure filling station and auto shop, Outrun Brewing Company eschews the typical brewery motif of brick, reclaimed wood, and pipes; instead there’s pink neon, an arcade game the business is named for, and a “retro-futurism” vibe that feels like Stranger Things meets Miami Vice meets Milwaukee. The proprietors are two funny suds aficionados, Josh Miller and Ryan Silva, who met each other while running brewing operations at Decatur’s Three Taverns. It’s not long before they start echoing Linder’s boosterism, lending some credence to his “cult” quip.
Miller: “There’s so many new businesses coming into Stone Mountain. It’s potentially the next big area.”
Silva: “It’s not much different than Decatur 15 or 20 years ago. It could be another Decatur.”
Miller: “People always say, ‘You’re all the way out in Stone Mountain’—all the way out? Have you driven the 15-minute drive? I take Memorial [Drive] from the eastside, and there’s never traffic, no matter what time it is.”
Silva: “The reality is, a lot of people can’t afford to live in [Atlanta], and that’s fine. We’re trying to bridge the gap between the city and the severely underserved suburbs. We wanted to be in on it from the start, not the tail end. We want to be part of building the community up and the struggles that are part of that.”
(Whether the small city could handle an influx of new residents remains to be seen, however. More on that shortly.)
Miller: “There’s so much raw potential here. All it takes is a couple of people saying, ‘Hey, let’s try something.’ And I think that’s happening now. That’s how these towns get started. It’s going to be a whole new world.”
Linder, grinning near the entrance: “If you look at our street grid, it’s what Suwanee and all these new communities are trying to duplicate. We’ve had it for 100 years—now we’re just trying to fill in the gaps.”
Beyond the brewery’s garage doors, the future patio for Adirondack chairs, and a towering magnolia stands an amenity that no other historic downtown in metro Atlanta can claim: the world’s largest piece of exposed granite, like the pate of a balding giant. Stone Mountain Park—the rock and private adventure grounds—is Georgia’s most popular tourist attraction (4 million annual guests strong) and one of the most-visited in the entire Southeast. There’s a 3,200-acre wonderland of trails and recreational sites around the mountain, all free to anyone who might, say, grab a pizza or beer in the village and walk or bike six blocks to the park.
The park is also home to the country’s largest shrine to the Confederacy, the enormous bas-relief sculpture of three Civil War leaders carved into the northern face, and a long, sullied history of Ku Klux Klan rallies and racist gatherings, including KKK parades as recently as the 1980s and an alt-right rally in 2016. The monadnock’s climbable, moonscape beauty includes a carving of Gen. Robert E. Lee as tall as a nine-story building—recently decried as the “largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world”—and the boulevard ringing it all bears the general’s name. The park was promptly closed last year when white supremacists attempted to rally during Atlanta’s Super Bowl. And though a group called Georgia Tourism Product Development Team has stepped in to help counter the reputation with reality, as the AJC reported last year, social media has played no small part in wedding the majority-black area with images of chanting, Confederate-flag waving white nationalists.
Sure, the symbols harken back to important American history. But they represent a glaring contrast to what’s becoming a more charming, diversified, and progressive former railroad village just beyond the park gates, where a wave of private investment promises to turn dead storefronts into a more organic type of attraction.
“This growth was bound to happen,” says Dorian DeBarr, Decide DeKalb Development Authority’s interim president. “As investors educated themselves and took an opportunity to actually experience what the village has to offer, it was a no-brainer.”
More broadly, DeKalb saw a surge of capital investment in 2019 to more than $1.1 billion—eight times the previous year—and growth as an entertainment industry destination, with productions as disparate as Dolly Parton Presents, Watchmen, Bad Boys 3, and Jumanji: The Next Level filming nearby. The mountain itself, of course, was immortalized in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most iconic speech, and this village of less than two square miles is where TV, music, and film superstar Donald Glover grew up.
So the contrast runs deep, like the granite. And for some, it stings.
“When you look at South DeKalb as a whole, it’s majority black, so you have to take that into consideration,” says Alan Peterson, the city’s Downtown Development Director with the DDA. “The monument, it’s state-owned. It’s history. It happened. There’s nothing we can do about it, and we’re just trying to move forward.”
Linder estimates that, as of a few years ago, between 60 and 70 percent of the early 20th century storefronts along Stone Mountain’s Main Street were vacant. Which makes a scathing Facebook review of the “ghost town” village, deposited on the city government’s page in 2016, no surprise:
“Only a few businesses remain and I can’t for the life of me understand how they are sustaining,” wrote one unimpressed patron. “The look on tourist faces when they visit downtown varies from shear surprise [sic], to disappointment and all-out disgust.”
That description conflicts with the bustling hub the village used to be. During Reconstruction, the Main Street area sprang into a center of tourism and industry hinged on quarrying. Local granite was shipped across the world, used in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, the Panama Canal, and in at least one building in almost every state in the U.S., including in the foundation of the Lincoln Memorial.
When the grounds around the mountain operated as a less-commercialized state park, the village was where tourists came for lunch, souvenirs, even a store that peddled butterflies, often riding a train that connected the two attractions. The state still owns the mountain but is leasing commercial operations for at least the next quarter-century to Norcross-based Herschend Family Entertainment, which owns or operates many other themed tourist hubs, such as Dollywood in Tennessee. The privatization deal began in 1998, and longtime locals say the village’s vibrancy soon changed, as the park’s main entrance was shifted to a U.S. Highway 78 exit, the village train ceased, and visitors began skirting the old town.
“I mean, they’re in business—nobody can blame [Herschend] for trying to keep the business in the park,” says Rory Webb, co-owner of Main Street bistro Stone Mountain Public House, who lives in a historic village house nearby. “But when they did all that, they virtually strangled the town. And I think a lot of the businesses weren’t willing or able to change with the times, to morph.”
Another struggle has been the misperception of rampant crime.
Business owners and longtime residents say two or three police officers from the city’s small department are seen patrolling the city’s 1.7 miles at most times, lending a sense of quietude—a bubble, even. Stone Mountain Police Department statistics show violent crime rates in 2019 at four per every 1,000 residents—or about 1/6 of the national average. An average of 21 property crimes, however, were reported per month last year, so it’s relatively safe but not exactly Mayberry.
“The worst thing is, a lot of people hear ‘Stone Mountain,’ and they think of unincorporated Stone Mountain,” says Webb. “You turn the news on, and there’s a stabbing or shooting in Stone Mountain, but you look, and it’s the DeKalb police, not inside the village.”
“It’s frustrating,” the DDA’s Peterson concurs. “We’re a small city, and our police force does a great job.”
Back on the walking tour, the Linders lead the way into a CBD retailer that opened next to the new pizza parlor in January, The Rose & Hemp. Behind the counter, founder Scott Koester says he and his wife, with a baby on the way, traded a 1,250-square-foot East Lake bungalow for a house they bought more than three times that size outside the village’s limits. He plans to live there for decades.
Koester was easily sold on the business location, he says, after parking across the street one day—in a lot where a free, open-container Friday music series, Tunes by the Tracks, will happen again this spring—and taking one look at Main Street’s bones.
“I can’t speak to the past, because I don’t know, I haven’t been here,” says Koester. “But it seems like a lot of people are coming together, to work together and make this a place people want to come.”
Directly above the shop, Lauren Godfrey and Ebonee Thompson, two friends and tech-company coworkers, are putting the finishing touches on the city’s first large coworking space, C3 Village, a sort of warmer WeWork with endearingly creaky floors and a lounge designed to resemble a Friends set. Like the brewers, CBD entrepreneur, and many others, they spoke of building a village of business allies and not competitors, each boat rising with a tide.
“Look, I’m a black girl from Florida, she’s a white girl from Georgia, and I think that it speaks to the story that people from completely different backgrounds can come together and create something so magical, something so passionate,” says Thompson, whose background in tourism has also landed her a deal to run the city’s new social media campaign. “That speaks volumes to what this community can do.”
As part of the city’s refined pitch to more investors, Peterson says the DDA is in the process of tabulating how much private investment—hundreds of thousands, at least—Stone Mountain has recently seen.
In January, the city inked a $155,000 contract with Atlanta architecture and engineering firm Pond to create a new downtown masterplan. Expected to be ready by August, the plan will aim to boost village esthetics and channel area visitors in from main arteries (by way of enhanced signage, as a starting point). Changes could also include additional bike lanes and green space meant to build off cyclist traffic that the popular PATH trail brings. A current city motto—“Atlanta’s Mountain Town”—is destined for the Dumpster, Peterson says.
Beyond the buildouts for forthcoming businesses, the makings of a buzzy, urban-style place are already here, headed by a diverse set of proprietors: a bike shop, arts center, theater, makers studio, antique shops, health store, new coffee house Gilly Brew Bar, event center and music studio 5380 Studios, a pie shop, and longstanding eateries like Public House, Sweet Potato Cafe (in a funky bungalow off Main Street), and the stalwart Wells Cargo Cafe.
Around the corner from the brewery in a circa-1900 brick building, however, could be the most-hyped new attraction on the walking tour: 13th Colony BBQ, a venture by Stone Mountain native Jonathan Hartnett of Decatur’s Las Brasas. That’s expected to open in April, on the corner opposite Stoned Pizza Kitchen, lending another commercial jolt to the village’s nucleic intersection.
“People love to see old historic buildings from the early 1900s repurposed,” says David Downs, a Realtor with Keller Knapp Realty, who fell for the village during group cycling rides from Decatur—and who’s bought and renovated three Main Street buildings in recent years. “You can’t build history.”
As a tangerine sunset flares over the pines, the walking tour concludes at a development called Hearthstone Park that could lend a glimpse at Stone Mountain Village’s residential future—where the Linders both own a home and, as real estate agents, are actively selling others.
Jelani, who’s been a village resident and homeowner since 2006, says Hearthstone marks the city’s first new housing development in nearly 20 years. Thirty-four standalone houses are planned around a central park, each with three bedrooms and mountain views. A starting price of $285,000 buys 1,500 square feet and change, while the $350,000 range gets a finished basement and 2,400 square feet.
“This is a half-million dollar product intown, at least,” Jelani notes in the model unit’s living room. “It’s something for people getting pushed out, or empty-nesters.”
For existing housing stock, Neighborhood Scout pegs the median Stone Mountain home value at just $127,724, with a majority built between 1970 and 1999. Per recent sales records, the low $200,000s buys a livable three-bedroom, midcentury bungalow within a few blocks of the village.
But the renovated classics near Main Street are harder to come by, often trading by word of mouth before listing. “When older homes do come on the market,” says Shani, “they go like that—snap!”
Census estimates show the city’s population has inched up by less than 500 people since 2010. And Jelani says infill opportunities in city limits are limited. So one can’t help but wonder, should the droves come seeking relatively affordable housing in a unique, walkable, outdoorsy setting—amidst a metro expected to ballon with 3 million more people by 2050—where they all might fit.
But that’s a matter for another, more sober day.
It being Friday night, the Public House—the village’s de facto Cheers—comes alive with clinking glasses, ragtime music, and karaoke crowds. In the back, huddled around a booth, Webb the co-owner describes how the village retains an overtly friendly, come-on-over southernness without the yesteryear stigma. He points to a crowd that’s diverse—and by all indications, defiantly proud of it.
“You either fall in love with the village, or you don’t,” says Webb. “And if you do, you got to live here. It’s the best hidden gem in Georgia.”