With high costs and low opportunities, Presidio County population declines, according to new study

PRESIDIO — Sylvia Aguilar and her husband Guadalupe are from Presidio and used to run La Pasadita restaurant in town. But around five years ago, Guadalupe found another job: driving trucks for the oil industry in Odessa.

Sylvia declined to discuss specifics of the couple’s finances but said Guadalupe is now making “way better pay.” Just as important, she says: he’s a salaried employee. That means he keeps his earnings, rather than funneling cash back into the restaurant.

This year, Aguilar says she plans to join her husband in Odessa. Much of her extended family has moved there, and if she wants a part-time job, she’s confident she can get one.

“It’s not just oil,” she said. The booming industry has led to other jobs in restaurants and stores as well. “Anywhere you go, there’s ‘Help wanted’ signs.”

The Aguilars aren’t the only Presidio residents looking outside the border city for opportunity. Even as the Lone Star State’s population booms, Presidio County is shrinking, as residents flee for better job prospects or a lower cost of living, according to an analysis released last month by the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Between 2010 and 2018, Presidio County’s only two cities — Marfa and Presidio — both earned spots on a list of the top-ten Texas cities with the biggest percentage declines in population. Marfa had the fourth-largest percentage drop in population, with a 14.1 percent decline from 1,981 residents in 2010 to 1,702 in 2018.

Presidio wasn’t far behind, according to the analysis, with the 8th largest decrease: 10.6 percent, from 4,426 people in 2010 to 3,957 in 2018. Presidio also earned a spot (ninth-place) on a list of the Texas cities that lost the greatest total number of residents in that time frame. The city shed an estimated 469 people, researchers said.

Lloyd Potter, a state demographer and director of the Texas Demographic Center, highlighted some of the trends affecting the Lone Star population, which has increased by around 4 million people since 2010. Texas has a relatively young population, he said, and as a result, births outpace deaths. Immigration (both interstate and international) also accounts for about 50 percent of growth.

But the picture is different in rural areas, Potter said. While cities like Austin and Houston are booming, 93 of Texas’s 254 counties lost population last decade. All of them were rural, and many were in West Texas and the panhandle.

That’s because older residents of rural and sparsely-populated areas are in their “high death” years and sometimes move to urban centers where they can get speciality care, he said. Meanwhile, younger residents are moving to cities for jobs and education.

“If you were born in a more rural part of the state and you want to work or do post-secondary school, you have to move to an urban area,” he said. Young people “don’t necessarily go back [to their hometowns] unless they have some opportunity there.” Instead, many find opportunities elsewhere, like in the Permian Basin.

The Big Bend Sentinel spoke to Marfans about the reasons they were leaving town — including to a teacher and her husband who bought a property in Fort Davis after deciding they couldn’t afford the housing costs.

There, short-term rentals like AirBnb have swallowed parts of the housing market, and the median value has more than tripled in the last decade, according to census and real estate data. “This is nothing new to us,” Raul Lara, a Marfa city councilman, said of the growing housing costs and shrinking population. “It’s a big concern.”

The situation in Presidio is different. The median home value is $46,500 and more than half of homes are “owner-occupied,” according to census data from 2017. And yet the city’s population is still shrinking, according to the analysis.

Here, residents and city officials say that a dearth of opportunities (rather than high housing costs) is the main force causing Presidians to look elsewhere. “Presidio needs more jobs,” City Attorney Rod Ponton said in an interview. “That is clear.”

Mayor John Ferguson agrees that better jobs elsewhere — and especially the Permian basin — are drawing people away from the city.

“A lot of the people have been lured away to some really well-paying jobs in the oil fields,” he said. “All you have to do is stand on the sidewalk during a holiday period such as Christmas, and look at all the expensive pickups that are towing trailers with four-wheeler toys and dune-buggy type vehicles.”

Still, Presidio has always been hard to count, with many residents splitting time in Ojinaga and beyond. And after the Trump administration floated the idea of adding a citizenship question to the census, some argue it’s gotten harder to count than ever.

“There’s gonna be people who are hesitant to want to get counted,” Mayor Ferguson said at a city council meeting in October, as city leaders advocated for a “complete count committee.” City Administrator Joe Portillo estimated at the meeting that the city would lose $1,600 for each resident not counted.

In 2012, a Presidio city consultant argued that the 2010 Census had undercounted the border city. Using active water connections, the consultant put the city’s population at over 5,000 — not 4,426 as the census had estimated.

“We’re always undercounted,” Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District, said. “The state demographers in San Antonio, they’ve never set foot in Presidio.” He pegged Presidio’s population at closer to 5,500, using that same water-connection rubric.

With the 2020 Census just months away, fewer residents counted will mean less money and less political power for Presidio County. The census not only determines voting districts: It also helps decide how much federal and state grant money is dedicated to local projects.

But it’s not just undercounting affecting the city’s population. It’s also who gets counted. Presidio has always had a “transient” population, with many workers leaving the city during weekdays for better pay, said Rogelio Zubia, a Presidio native and city councilman.

“People have to go outside of town to find work,” he said. “That’s always been true for Presidio — ever since I was a little kid.”

Those workers may often return to Presidio for the weekends and may even consider the border city their home. But they don’t spend 51 percent of their time there — the threshold the U.S. Census Bureau uses to decide where someone is a resident.

“There’s a lot of people that live out of town,” Newton said, “but they still call Presidio home.”

If all those transient workers were counted in Presidio, many city officials say Presidio wouldn’t have a declining population. Rod Ponton, for example, points to school enrollment at the local school district, which he said has continued to increase. (Presidio ISD did not provide enrollment statistics by press time.)

And some officials, like Ponton, say those workers — some of whom have homes in Presidio — should be counted towards the city’s population.  “It’s going to be really crucial to count them that way,” Ponton said. “A mancamp in an oil field, to me, isn’t a residence.”