By Sally Beauvais
This story is the first in Marfa Public Radio’s series Tipping Point. It’s about tourism-driven development in Marfa and the greater Big Bend region, and how our communities are thinking about the future.
Amid public conversation about developments on the horizon — a new major music festival proposed by Austin-based C3 Presents, new businesses, events and places to stay, and new decisions and initiatives by elected officials that will have lasting implications into the future — Marfans are asking: what do we need?
For residents who think tourism has already become too much of a priority over their quality of life, reaching the tipping point could mean living in Marfa becomes undesirable, or in some situations, unfeasible.
For those who think business and development need to continue to grow in order to keep the community going, the tipping point could be passing up opportunities that would bring more interest and money to the region.
The series kicks off with a look at a controversial decision by county officials at the start of 2019.
Precedent: the County and late night serving hours
In late January, the Presidio County Commissioners Court granted Marfa businessman Tim Crowley permission to serve alcohol until 2 am 7 days a week at a property he’s planning just west of city limits.
Bars within the city serve until midnight, with the exception of Saturdays, when they can sell alcohol until 1 am. But Crowley’s request falls under the county’s jurisdiction, because the property lies outside of Marfa’s city limits.
County commissioners — who regularly alternate meeting locations between the county’s two largest communities — voted on Crowley’s proposal in Presidio, 60 miles south of Marfa.
Back in 2016, commissioners denied a request for extended serving hours by El Cosmico — a hotel and campground just south of the city — at a meeting in Marfa, after a group of residents attended to voice their opposition. Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort situated in a remote part of the county, has had late night serving hours for 15 years, according to County Judge Cinderela Guevara.
After the Big Bend Sentinel reported on the Commissioners’ vote to grant extended hours to Crowley, a handful of residents showed up at the next commissioners meeting in Marfa — to ask questions and voice concerns. Including Jenny Moore, Executive Director of the Chinati Foundation.
“My question is the process for approval for something, a plan that has been made neither public or been made formal,” she told commissioners.
Moore says in 2013, Chinati had 12,500 visitors. Last year, they logged over 45,000 guests.
“Marfa’s on the cusp of a lot of change,” Moore told Marfa Public Radio in an interview. “I think many of us in town feel it. We experience it. You could say Chinati is certainly an agent of that change.”
She thinks the community needs to be strategic about moving forward.
“Marfa’s being forced to deal with these things very quickly,” she said. “And I think that kind of rapid change is what generates a lot of anxiety. And it’s the town’s responsibility and each citizen to play a role in that.”
Moore wants to better understand the process through which her elected officials are making decisions about the future. So, keeping this in mind, Marfa Public Radio set out to explore how exactly the Commissioners Court made this particular decision back in January, and why it’s not sitting well with some residents.
Tim Crowley’s new development will sit on his property just west of Marfa’s city limits. It’s unclear what exactly it will look like; he hasn’t released any official plans, or begun building it yet.
The property’s already a roadside attraction, because of the Stardust Marfa sign. It’s a popular photo op for tourists on their way into town — an old, faded motel sign lit up with new neon, sticking out from the shoulder of Highway 90 like a beacon for road-weary travelers. Marfa lies a half mile in the distance.
Commissioner Buddy Knight says Crowley showed him the property ahead of the meeting.
“He showed me a place where the old Stardust Motel used to be,” Knight said. “He wants to build a small venue for weddings, wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners…it’s going to have a bar, and a kitchen.” And eventually, maybe hotel rooms, and a space for conferences and yoga retreats.
Crowley declined comment to Marfa Public Radio about his business plans for the property.
“It’s kind of what the consumer wants,” Crowley told commissioners at the January 23rd meeting in Presidio.
Hosting wedding receptions can be difficult in the summer when the sun goes down late, according to Crowley. “You give last call at 11, people don’t want to start the music until it’s dark,” he said.
He indicated that late night hours were essential to the success of the project.
“I still don’t like the idea of selling alcohol late,” Commissioner Brenda Bentley said during the meeting. “But I get what he’s trying to do out there, and this is a make-or-break deal for him. But what I would like to do is perhaps visit this in Marfa.”
Bentley said she was skeptical when she first learned of the project, but had a change of heart when Crowley showed her his vision for the property. Still, she motioned to bring the request in front of the public in Marfa.
“With all respect, I may decline if you push that way,” said Crowley. “Because I really think that this is an excellent idea. We run the best operation in Marfa, period.”
Crowley also owns the Saint George, a 55-room room luxury hotel that opened in 2016.
He told commissioners he wasn’t up to the public beat up. “If you schedule a hearing, I may not attend,” he said. “Because I don’t want to hear, you know, the ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to increase drinking and driving. This is going to be bad for this or bad for that.’”
“Honestly, we don’t like the beatings either,” Bentley responded. “But I feel like it’s fair to the public to do that.”
Presidio County has few options when it comes to bringing in revenue, limited largely to property taxes. Commissioner Knight told Marfa Public Radio in a later interview, “once [Crowley] builds this venue, that land it’s sitting on becomes more valuable. It’s now commercial property, and a tax rate on commercial property is pretty high.”
At the meeting, he added the County would also collect an alcohol tax off the Crowley project. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Presidio County took in $8,723.30 in mixed beverage allocations for the entire county, according to data on the Texas Comptroller’s website.
Texas law does not require Presidio County to bring the Crowley’s request to a meeting closer to Marfa. Commissioner Bentley’s motion to move the item failed for lack of a second, and ultimately, the county officials voted 4 to 1 in favor of the late night hours, with Bentley dissenting.
Once the decision made it into the newspaper, some residents started asking questions.
Including Mark Rodriguez, the co-owner of Mando’s, a restaurant just down the street from Crowley’s property.
“To me, right now, it just kind of looks like, almost favoritism. You know what I’m saying?” Rodriguez offered. “Why did they shoot down Cosmico about it, and then yet all of a sudden, you know, this guy doesn’t even have — the building’s not even there, and they’re all like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re okay, you’re good.'”
The County unanimously denied El Cosmico’s request for late night serving hours back in 2016.
For the record, Rodriguez isn’t upset at the idea of alcohol being served until 2 am.
“I’m fine, because I’ll probably be one of the customers sitting there,” Rodriguez laughed.
But to him, if the Commissioners give late night hours to one establishment, every bar in Marfa should have that business opportunity. To be clear, a request for extended serving privileges within city limits would come in front of Marfa’s City Council, not the Presidio County Commissioners.
Regardless, County Judge Cinderela Guevara — who presides over the Commissioners Court — admits that may be the direction the community is moving in. Neighboring cities like Alpine and Presidio already have bars that serve until 2.
“I stand 100 percent by my decision. And no, I don’t feel there was any favoritism,” Guevara told Marfa Public Radio.
To her, the two properties are just different. El Cosmico has closer neighbors than the new Crowley property does. She doesn’t like the parking situation at El Cosmico — which also sits on a highway — during their annual music festival. She thinks it’s already too dangerous without extended drinking hours.
And, to Guevara, Crowley’s project is too good of an opportunity to pass up
“Tim Crowley just made it clear at that time that should he have to come to Marfa, that he probably wouldn’t pursue the endeavor anymore,” she said.
Longtime Marfa resident Arlene Acosta isn’t a fan of the Commissioners’ decision, or the process through which they made it.
“Marfa needs to decide, when is enough going to be enough?” she said. “We’re going to ruin our community, what everybody loves about Marfa, if we don’t put a stop to some of these things going up.”
She doesn’t like the idea of a bar serving alcohol until 2am — close to where she’s raising her 5 kids, on the west side of town. She also wonders if Marfa needs another venue right now. If Crowley opens a new hotel at his property, Acosta’s worried it could pull business away from the hotel where she works.
Next election day, Acosta says she’ll remember the Commissioners’ decision to vote on the request in Presidio.
“It’s almost 2020, and we get to vote,” Acosta said. “And I will be one of those persons that are standing out there and reminding people, because sometimes people forget about these things.”
She’s protesting Crowley’s application with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Marfa’s mayor, Ann Marie Nafziger, told Marfa Public Radio she’s also planning on protesting the application.
County Attorney Rod Ponton stands by the way the County made this decision. He also likes the project.
“You know, Marfa’s turned into a tourist town,” Ponton said. “We attract a lot of tourists, we’re attracting a lot of weddings, a lot of events. And I think we should try to work within that new Marfa.”
From his perspective, residents already missed their window to participate in the Commissioners’ public process.
“This meeting was posted the same way every meeting is posted,” he said.
Agendas for commissioners meetings are posted on the courthouse door in Marfa and the courthouse annex door in Presidio at least 72 hours in advance of the meetings.
“If anybody has anything to say about an item on an agenda, the Commissioners Court invites them to come talk to them,” he offered. “If people in Marfa can’t drive 60 miles to Presidio, that’s their fault.”
But Since August of 2018 the county has failed to post notice of commissioners meetings on its website. Contacted by phone, Houston-based first amendment lawyer Joe Larsen called this a “blatant and serious violation of Texas Open Meeting Act.”
Asked about posting meeting notice online, Rod Ponton said Presidio County should follow the law.
Commissioner Buddy Knight says in retrospect, he thinks the court should have heard Crowley’s request in Marfa.
“I think it was a mistake, I think I made a mistake, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not perfect,” he said.
But he still stands by his vote. He thinks approving the late night hours — and clearing the way for Crowley’s business — was the right thing do.
Contacted by email, the owner of El Cosmico told Marfa Public Radio, the hotel will come in front of the Commissioners again to request late night serving hours — in light of the court’s recent decision.
Full disclosure: Marfa Public Radio’s Sally Beauvais was working for El Cosmico in 2016, when the Presidio County Commissioners denied a request for extended serving hours from the hotel. She was not involved in the business side of the request.