In debate over reopening, “Visit Marfa” Facebook page becomes hotspot

“So does Marfa want people to come visit or stay away for a while??” one visitor wrote. “Confused by things I have read.”

MARFA — Since the City of Marfa runs the Marfa Visitor Center, its website and, until recently, a dedicated Instagram, locals and visitors might assume that city leaders also run a related “Visit Marfa” Facebook page.

Some city leaders assumed the same. But there’s no formal connection — and now city leaders are planning to beef up their own social media presence for tourists due to a difference in philosophy with the main “Visit Marfa” page concerning the coronavirus.

While tourism in Marfa has become a hot-button topic during the pandemic, the “Visit Marfa” page has remained an unabashed supporter of tourism in the region. But as the debate on everything from lockdown measures to face mask recommendations becomes increasingly partisan, the City of Marfa is wary of locals or residents perceiving tourist boosterism as its official city stance. Some city leaders were not even initially sure who was running the page.

Dan Dunlap, a former Marfa mayor and current city contractor, started the “Visit Marfa” Facebook page around 2008 while he was mayor. For a while, Patrick Rivera, Marfa’s assistant director of tourism, helped run it, further cementing the association some Marfans have between the page and official city outreach efforts.

But Dunlap parted ways with Rivera earlier this year, Dunlap said in an interview last week — a move he said had nothing to do with the current debate in Marfa over how to balance desires for tourist dollars with concerns about public safety.

Instead, Dunlap said, he had used his own credit card to pay to boost a post on the site. And “since my credit is going to be on the line here,” Dunlap decided to remove Rivera and become the only administrator.

By Monday night, the city had removed its official “Visit Marfa” Instagram page, VisitMarfaTX. Mayor Manny Baeza said the city wanted to streamline its online information for visitors, noting that it had been difficult to keep up with all of the different social media accounts.

“That page is going to be removed,” Baeza said. He said the city wanted to funnel visitors into several “designated sites,” including official web pages run by the city, the Marfa police, the Marfa library and the Marfa Visitors Center.

The developments are part of a growing divide over how this tourist region should respond to the current coronavirus pandemic, which has surged across Texas in recent weeks. Officials in both Presidio and Brewster counties have warned of possible spread, citing accelerating case-counts in the region.

The Facebook page has received fresh attention during the pandemic as it continues its core mission of directing visitors to Marfa businesses and area events. Texas leaders have been “reopening” the state for weeks and have overturned local rules meant to slow the spread of coronavirus, from face mask ordinances in Houston and the City of Presidio to the temporary ban on short-term rentals in Presidio County. But tri-county residents remain conflicted on whether local leaders should encourage visitors to the region, and some local businesses remain closed or are to-go or by-appointment only.

In the past week, the “Visit Marfa” Facebook page has posted more than a dozen times, including posts about local hotels, menu items at local restaurants and tourist attractions like Big Bend National Park. By contrast, the official “Visit Marfa” Instagram page hadn’t posted since February, when it remarked on a snow day. “I’ve taken the stance of not promoting [tourism] as much,” Rivera, the assistant tourism director who runs that page, said of his approach to the current pandemic.

Rivera declined to comment on the “Visit Marfa” Facebook page or on the broader debate over how to balance economic needs against coronavirus precautions. Multiple city officials said they were not aware of Rivera receiving any specific directives or policies regarding how to handle social media posts and promotions in general, given the circumstances.

Rivera said he posted when the city directed him to — for instance, by sharing in an Instagram story when there was an update to local coronavirus measures. But he said he had been cautious about promoting tourism during the pandemic.

“There are other things that are important,” he said. Namely: the safety of people who live here.

Dunlap told The Big Bend Sentinel that he’s received compliments and thank-yous — not complaints — for his recent efforts to continue promoting local businesses on Facebook. He also said he removed any links that might confuse readers about a formal connection with the city.

Instead, Dunlap said he’s happy to continue promoting businesses in his personal capacity as a resident. And if city leaders “don’t want me promoting Marfa, that’s just too bad.”

“The virus is terrible,” he added. “But destroying the economy is worse.”

On the “Visit Marfa” page, Dunlap has at times addressed this difference of opinion. In May, for example, a woman posted on the page to inquire whether Marfa currently wanted tourists.

“So does Marfa want people to come visit or stay away for a while??” she wrote. “Confused by things I have read.”

“Please come and enjoy our beautiful weather and scenery,” Dunlap replied. He added that “the town is learning to open safely,” as were “surrounding towns and parks.”

At a city council meeting last week, Buck Johnston, a council member and local business owner, asked other city leaders about the page, noting that she had received questions and complaints about it. “The complaint was that the ‘Visit Marfa’ page was encouraging tourism too soon and too early,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

The issue prompted some confusion at the meeting. City leaders quickly determined that Rivera was no longer updating the page but weren’t immediately sure who was running it.

It didn’t take long to clear the air, though. The next day, Dunlap called Mandy Roane, the city’s director of community services, to clarify that he had started the page and is still running it.

Roane stressed there was no dispute between Dunlap and the city. “He created the page, so it’s his page,” she said.

Roane didn’t think anyone from the city had asked to be added back to the account. Instead, Marfa city leaders are considering another tack: setting up their own online landing site for visitors.

At press time, the details on that plan are still vague, with suggestions ranging from a new Facebook page and social media presence to more updates on the official website. “You have to remember, this is all pretty new,” said Mayor Baeza.

City Attorney Teresa Todd said she was among the city officials who believed the “Visit Marfa” Facebook page was run by the city. She said the city wanted to clear up the confusion for both residents and tourists.

“For me, the issue is to make sure there’s separation between the city-owned website and this ‘Visit Marfa’ page that Dan started,” she said. “I think it’s in a different place and has different goals.”

The situation is a case study in how Marfans have split over coronavirus, coronavirus precautions and the ensuing national partisan divide over both. Marfans — many of whom work in or run tourist-oriented businesses — have often been united in their support for having a steady stream of tourists through the area, but coronavirus has changed that. And soon, there could be two Facebook pages geared towards visitors: one that prioritizes revving the Marfa economy back to life and another that prioritizes public safety.