From new organizations to planned construction, Presidio eyes increased tourism

PRESIDIO — The stars of “Giant,” a classic 1950s Western filmed in Marfa, are often associated with the historic Paisano hotel in Marfa, where many of them stayed during filming.

But less well-known is the fact that those stars also spent time at the Phillips Hotel in downtown Presidio, said Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District. According to local legend, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor made a visit to the city.

The hotel has long since disappeared, but the dream of making Presidio a tourist destination in its own right is still very much alive in the minds of city officials. In a region characterized by tourism, from the state and national parks to art galleries in the Marfa and Alpine, Presidio city leaders have spent years working to ramp up their own tourism, including festivals and radio and magazine ads.

As coronavirus brings U.S. tourism to a relative standstill, Presidio officials once again are setting their sights on this goal.

From a new cultural district to a new tourism board, city officials and residents have spent much of 2020 deliberating and investing in new tourism initiatives — a process only partially slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s the perfect time to be building new attractions for when COVID’s over,” Newton said in a phone interview on Tuesday. When the pandemic is over, “we’ll hit the ground running.” He later added: “Coming out of COVID, we’re looking for job creation and retention.”

Last month, Presidio saw the arrival of a new cultural district. That group is a civic organization with no official ties to Presidio, though city leaders have formally recognized it.

That cultural district is just one part of Presidio’s renewed push for tourism and downtown revitalization, though. The city is also dusting off plans to build a hike-and-bike trail near the athletics center and Lucy Rede Franco Middle School. Working with the Texas Department of Transportation as the lead organizer, the city has already hired a project manager and plans to start work in mid-July, Newton said.

In March, the city also revived the official Presidio Convention & Tourism Bureau with the goal of further promoting tourism in the border city.

Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, an administrative assistant at Fort Leaton State Historic Site, is president of the bureau. A variety of local stakeholders, including Rafael Carrera, owner of the Trading Post bar and grill in Presidio, and Elvis Medina, a city parks official, are also members.

The goal of the group, Velazquez-Ornelas said in a phone interview on Tuesday, is to help create conditions where more tourists want to stop and spend time in Presidio. She pointed to regional towns like Alpine, where walkable street designs and tourist-y shops have helped create a visitors’ mecca in the downtown area.

Presidio’s situation is different. Some visitors are on their way to Ojinaga, and “most people are driving through because they’re trying to get to those big state parks or the national park,” she said. Now, the tourism bureau hopes to change that.

The bureau, she noted, was technically formed all the way back in 2009. But “nothing came out of it,” Velazquez-Ornelas said with a chuckle. With budgetary and other issues in the city, “tourism was not on the top priority.”

Like Newton, Velazquez-Ornelas viewed the pandemic as the perfect time to start planning for more tourism. At first, “we felt so hopeless,” she said. Presidians were wary of encouraging visitors to the border city, where about 25 percent of residents are over 65 and therefore more vulnerable to severe coronavirus symptoms.

Then, last month, Presidio organized a socially-distant drag race. “We saw how people were excited to be here,” she said, and the city started warming to the idea of more tourism.

The tourism bureau first met in March and was officially approved by the city in April. The group had big plans, “but then COVID hit,” Velazquez-Ornelas added. “We didn’t have any meetings until last week.”

And when the tourism board did meet last week, the development that came out of it was quite possibly Presidio’s biggest tourism initiative yet.

The city is applying for a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which it hopes to use to build a 10,000 square-foot convention center. Part of the city-owned property, which abuts O’Reilly Street in the center of town, will also be used as an incentive to attract a hotel, Newton said. The project is known as the “Epicenter Project,” Newton said, because it’s right in the center of town.

So far, one interested company has approached the city, Newton said. He declined to give more details, citing the developing situation.

“It’s open to anyone interested” in applying, he stressed of the incentives. “It’s not a done deal.”

The city is hoping for a hotel with at least 80 rooms — a number that would almost double Presidio’s hotel capacity. The city wants it to be a flagship hotel with broad name recognition, like a Holiday Inn or La Quinta.

It could be years before the details of that grant, hotel and convention project come together, and that’s “if the stars align,” Newton said. But for Newton and others in Presidio, a new hotel could be just what the city needs.

He pointed to Fort Stockton, where he said the first hotel along Interstate 10 went in about 20 years ago. Since then, the number of hotels in the city has ballooned.

“You have to jumpstart hotels,” Newton said. “And when one does well it attracts another, and another, and another.” He also pointed to dollar stores in the city, where competition has spawned more stores — “and they’re all doing well.”

At the very least, Newton said, the project would give visitors to Presidio a place to spend the night. As it stands, he said, many instead find accommodations in Alpine — an almost two-hour drive away.

At best, city leaders hope the project could spur development in a city already rich in history, culture and adobe buildings. “We want to cash in on Presidio’s history,” Newton said. “We were like the before-city: we were here before the U.S. became a country, before there was a Texas — even back to prehistoric man,” when the Mongollon people set up an agricultural village in or near Presidio.

“People coming to this area is nothing new,” Newton added. “We’d like to share that, once this COVID thing is over.” He said the convention center project would employ around 100 people, and “right now, people need jobs.” And maybe it could even bring Presidio back to the days when the stars of “Giant” came to explore the border city. But “in Presidio,” Newton stressed, “everyone is a star who comes to visit us.”