March 28, 2019 500 AM
A letter to our community from #MarfaSaysNo
Dear Marfa neighbors,
Many of us are deeply concerned about the proposed C3 Presents “FORMAT” festival slotted for 2020. C3, an Austin-based corporation, is proposing a large music festival at the A.S. Gage Ranch just a few miles north of Marfa. The FORMAT festival is being pitched as a yearly event, with an initial cap of 6,000 attendees with plans to grow to 17,000 and up. We know Marfa’s economy is largely driven by tourism, but we believe that on infrastructural, environmental, and economic levels, this proposed festival threatens the well-being of the lifelong and year-round residents who make Marfa such a wonderful place to visit and live.
The first of our most pressing concerns regards the city’s and county’s infrastructure and emergency services. There are only a few ways to enter and leave town. C3 is proposing access to the festival via highways 17 and 67, meaning a huge inflow of traffic on Marfa’s declining roads. Beyond the roads, it is not uncommon for our town to run out of gas and staple groceries during event weekends. If there is an extreme weather event, where are all of these people going to seek shelter? Even under normal circumstances, it is difficult to ensure health and safety for a crowd of this size in Presidio County. Consider another C3 Presents event, Lollapalooza in Chicago. They experience dozens of arrests and hundreds of hospitalizations every year. Large music festivals mean crime, traffic, and overdoses at rates that could easily overwhelm our rural services and infrastructure. C3 claims they will bring their own security and medics, but once festival attendees are processed onsite, there are few places to take them. If our emergency services are strained beyond capacity during the festival, what does that mean for residents in need during that time?
Another major concern is the festival’s environmental impact. The land in this area is a unique kind of grassland. The proposed festival site, between the sky islands of the Davis and Chisos mountains, is in the migration path of numerous unique species of birds and insects, as well as the rangeland of larger mammals like javelinas, mountain lions, and pronghorns. Preserving the grassland is essential to preserving soil quality and biodiversity, which in turn support sustainable ranching practices. This grassland is also a tinderbox. Many of our residents remember the Rock House Fire in the spring of 2011. Another devastating fire could easily be sparked by cigarettes or car exhaust systems, which festivals bring to their host sites in droves. The location is also within the McDonald Observatory Dark Sky Preserve, which places restrictions on light pollution. These environmental concerns are more than abstract––our tourists come to West Texas to experience the peace and quiet of a small town, as well as our stunning night skies and unique wildlife, all of which the proposed festival would put at risk.
A longer-term concern is the impact of large-scale events on our town’s economic future. A festival of this size has the potential to be a history-altering event for this region, yet none of the people organizing it live in Marfa. They are not impacted by ballooning property values, by the strain to the city’s infrastructure, and the inability of local wages to keep pace with the cost of living. Our restaurants and hotels are already overbooked, so when festivals come to town, they often bring food trucks, bartenders, and other services with them, rather than hiring locals. This is part of a larger trend in our tourist industry: these tourists would not be coming to Marfa to get a real “Marfa experience”, but rather to have a big city experience in a novel location. As a result, very wealthy people like the organizers of C3 Presents are more readily able to take over business opportunities and real estate in Marfa than people who have lived and worked here their entire lives. If we want to create a sustainable economic future for Marfa’s children, we must send a strong message: money cannot buy Marfa.
If you are as concerned about these issues as we are, we invite you to join us at the Presidio County Courthouse at 9:30 AM on Wednesday, April 3. The County Commissioners Court, responsible for approving or denying the permits for this event, has welcomed the public to attend and voice their opinions. Whether or not you are able to join us, please contact your county representatives––particularly our county commissioners, county attorney, and county judge––with your perspective. Their information can be found on the Presidio County website. For assistance and more ways to get involved, you can contact [email protected].
The document produced by Austin’s C3 Presents in response to questions from citizens and public officials in Presidio and Jeff Davis counties concerning the music festival they are proposing to hold on a ranch between Marfa and Fort Davis, which was published in last week’s Big Bend Sentinel, is the most puerile collection of clichés and meaningless generalizations I have seen in many years.
C3 Presents say that they intend to produce a festival that “will be curated to attract art and music appreciators and a sophisticated, culturally attune (sic) adult audience that is excited by cross-disciplinary innovation and collaboration.” Here are all of the buzz words of the past decade gathered into one sentence. What does it mean?
It means that if C3’s plans are approved by the Presidio County judge, 5,000 people (or perhaps 17,500, or perhaps 70,000 – all 3 figures have been thrown around) will converge in a pasture north of Marfa, accessible only by Highway 17, for 3 days next spring.
The document goes on to attempt to allay our fears about environmental damage, fire, traffic congestion, and public safety. “C3 Presents,” it says, “is committed to working with the community . . . to protect the species in the area.” They have been in touch, they say, “with several environmental experts as well as conservation groups in the area and will work hand-in-hand with them to finalize a plan.” Fire prevention? They will “reach out to the Texas Forest Service for best practices and discuss ways to utilize the airport in case of emergency.” Traffic congestion? They will “work with local law enforcement” to come up with a plan. If necessary, they will contact officers from “the Highway Patrol and TxDOT” (TxDOT builds and maintains state highways. It has nothing to do with the people who travel on them). Public safety? “We take impact to public safety very seriously,” the document says. “Our standard operating procedure is to develop a comprehensive plan for all agencies to ensure that the event has little or no impact on public services.”
This kind of document is known among the Washington bureaucrats among whom I worked for 20 years as a Cover Your Ass Boilerplate Memo. Its purpose is not to inform but to obfuscate. It is an insult to the people to whom it is addressed. We would rather hear about concrete plans that we can evaluate, rather than be patronizingly told not to worry, plans are in the works (they will work with the Texas Forest Service to use the Marfa airport?). C3 Presents is not getting off to a good start in the Big Bend.