By Sally Beauvais
Nearly 100 Presidio County residents packed Marfa’s Shorthorn Cafeteria on Wednesday evening for a county meeting dedicated to gathering public input about permitting procedures for large-scale events and outdoor festivals.
The county does not currently have an application process in place, but commissioners began discussing the need for one earlier this year, on the heels of a controversial proposal by C3 Presents — the Texas-based company behind Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Local officials say the event producers are planning a festival of roughly 6,000 people on a ranch outside of Marfa, though that number has fluctuated since news of the event became public.
The potential festival has sparked heated debate among residents and elected officials about whether the remote area can safely support an event of that size, and whether it would be a boon or a detriment to the local tourism industry.
“Tonight you will not get feedback from the commissioners, we just want to listen to you,” County Judge Cinderela Guevara announced at the top of Wednesday’s meeting.
County officials are in the process of drafting two different application procedures. One for outdoor music festivals and another for “mass gatherings.” The former is defined in the Texas Occupational Code as an outdoor performance event of more than 5,000 people lasting two or more consecutive days. The latter, outlined in the state’s Health and Safety Code, is an event that will attract more than 2,500 people, or more than 500 people if 51% or more of those in attendance may be under 21 years old and alcoholic beverages are expected to be consumed. In both cases, events only qualify as such if they are held outside of city limits.
The purpose of the hearing, which was requested by a group of local residents, was to gather concerns and ideas related to what the county’s permitting procedures for all future large-scale events might entail.
But for the majority of attendees who spoke — many sporting buttons in support of Marfa Says No, the local opposition group — the meeting was about C3’s proposed event, and the long term effects it could have on the region.
Two dozen participants addressed commissioners during the meeting. Here’s what they had to say.
Much of the community’s input emphasized the strain that an event the size of C3’s would put on local emergency response and medical services. Citing incidents at other festivals across the U.S. that have led to evacuations like fires, shootings, and extreme weather, Marfa resident Shelley Bernstein urged commissioners to consider how they would take care of thousands of extra people if emergencies “beyond the promoter’s control” occurred.
“People in an evacuation become the county’s problem the second they step over the private property line,” Bernstein said.
Miguel Mendías, also a Marfa resident, recounted his past experience working a contract security gig at Bonnaroo, a larger festival held in a rural area of Tennessee that’s currently produced by Live Nation, C3’s parent company.
“My first hour of my first day of my first shift, I had a dead person to contend with,” Mendías said, adding that drug overdose and heat exhaustion were common culprits in medical emergencies in his experience attending festivals in the past.
Marfa currently has one primary ambulance and one back up ambulance, though the city only has enough EMS personnel to operate one at a time, according to Presidio County Emergency Coordinator Gary Mitschke, who was out of town for Wednesday’s meeting.
Also absent were two other officials — County Health Authority Dr. John Paul Schwartz and Sheriff Danny Dominguez. Along with Mitschke, they will ultimately be responsible for assessing whether prospective large-scale events are in compliance with the county’s health and safety criteria put forth in the application.
Former Marfa Mayor Ann Marie Nafziger asserted that the community has plenty of unmet needs as it is, and that the large numbers of people who visit during events only increase safety risks.
“More traffic accidents, more crime, life-threatening emergencies, and perhaps the most alarming to all of us is the large-scale risk of wildfire,” Nafziger said, reflecting on the historic 2011 Rock House Fire that destroyed 300,000 acres of grassland, as well as area homes and livestock.
C3 had originally planned the proposed festival for May 2020, during high season for wildfires in West Texas. They’ve since delayed their target date.
In a March letter, representatives of the company stated that in regards to fire safety, they would “reach out to the Texas Forest Service for best practices” and “discuss ways to utilize the airport in case of emergency,” as well as employ fire personnel on site, and restrict smoking to designated areas.
They also wrote that they would contract security, medical, and police personnel to lessen the strain on local agencies.
The Local Tourism Economy
“Tourism is our biggest economy,” said Marfa resident Rob Crowley, one of several speakers who expressed ambivalence towards or support of C3’s festival. “I just would hate it if we became known as that angry little town in West Texas that has all these nice restaurants and galleries and events, but we hate tourism.”
Crowley added that this year’s Trans Pecos Festival of Music and Love hosted by El Cosmico — about a third of the size of C3’s proposed event — was executed smoothly.
Residents speaking in opposition to the event also acknowledged the importance of tourism. Marfa local Karen Crenshaw said that in many cases, it’s enriched the lives of people in the community.
“The kind of mass tourism we’re discussing doesn’t have long-term benefits,” Crenshaw argued. “Most of the jobs do not go to locals. The majority of the revenue is kept by outside investors, and the overwhelming crowds are more harmful than beneficial.”
She warned that if the community doesn’t plan for the potential impact of events like C3’s, “we’ll destroy the very thing we all love, like a snake eating its own tail.”
Kirish Dirkson, who is currently working for C3 festival organizer Vance Knowles, urged attendees to get their facts straight before forming opinions.
“I think the animosity everyone’s had towards something that hasn’t even happened yet, that’s just a proposal, has been pretty nasty,” Dirkson said.
He clarified that he was not speaking as a representative of C3.
County officials have stated at previous meetings that, per Texas state law, it’s not within their discretion to cap the attendance of mass gatherings or outdoor music festivals.
But Trey Gerfers, along with a group of residents who’ve attempted to advise the county in the process of drafting permitting procedures, consulted an outside attorney who thinks otherwise.
Gerfers argued that the county’s emergency officials have the ability to analyze how many visitors they can handle while still performing their core duties in serving the general public — and then make that a criteria for large-scale events.
“If you have some sort of a limit on the number of people who can be at a mass gathering, and the promoter doesn’t agree with that, they’re not going to sue you. They’re just going to take it up to the next court, and they’re going to have it reviewed there,” Gerfers said.
“The waist-high gamagrass you see as you drive in any direction [around Marfa] is a direct result of good stewardship,” resident Allison Scott said at Wednesday’s meeting, praising early Presidio County ranchers’ methods of tending to their land.
She argued that the delicate ecology of the grasslands poised to host C3’s festival would never recover from that volume of people and activity.
Rainer Judd, daughter of the late artist Donald Judd — whose arrival in Marfa sparked the city’s modern-day tourism industry — said she can’t support gatherings that occur on any primary habitats that are currently intact.
“If C3 wants to have a gathering on the Marfa Golf Course, I think that would be great,” Judd said. “I think the wildlife and the open lands out here have to be protected. I think tourism doesn’t just benefit from it, it absolutely depends on it.”
No action was taken at Wednesday’s meeting.