August 5, 2020 617 PM
PRESIDIO — In the popular travel magazine Texas Highways, Presidio recently earned a spot among 10 towns that have “adapted and flourished” in recent years. The article showcased small Texas towns that are responding to the changing circumstances — particularly during the coronavirus crisis, when Texans have been tasked with “protecting their health while improvising new ways to sustain their economies.”
Presidio has taken coronavirus seriously, with city leaders joining the rest of the region earlier this year in imposing bans on short-term rentals and other safety requirements. And Presidio went even farther than towns like Marfa and Alpine, at one point even imposing restrictions on nonessential visitors.
Clayton Maxwell, a writer-at-large for the magazine who wrote the blurb on Presidio, is aware of the border city’s coronavirus precautions. For her piece, she spoke to Brad Newton, executive director at the Presidio Municipal Development District, who “made it very clear that Presidio is being very, very cautious and asking anyone who came there to quarantine for two weeks,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. As a result, “we couldn’t come out and investigate for ourselves how it adapted.”
Still, Maxwell had an edge. A frequent visitor to the region, she also lived in Presidio in the 1990s. She said she has always been moved by the city’s rich culture, from its history (the town was established all the way back in 1681, before the United States was a country) to its adobe buildings and small-town feel.
In Presidio, “it feels like I’ve stepped into a world that’s not quite the U.S. and not quite Mexico,” she said. “It’s a special combination.” She also pointed to efforts to revitalize Presidio’s core, including a new art gallery and related new cultural district. (The owner of that gallery, Adele Jancovici, earned a shout-out in Maxwell’s piece.)
In the Big Bend, though, adaptation means more than coronavirus. The region has transformed over the years, going from a far-flung community of ranches and stark landscapes to a chic travel destination for art and leisure.
But Presidio is still an outlier from those trends, for better and for worse. As places like Marfa and Terlingua have transformed, city leaders in Presidio have spent years trying to further tap into regional tourism.
On the other hand, in Presidio, “it seems like consumerism hasn’t kind of thwarted its natural charm,” Maxwell says. Between the hip eateries in Marfa and the resorts in Fort Davis, Maxwell sometimes hears complaints that there isn’t enough to do in Presidio — but she disagrees. She thinks there’s plenty to do in Presidio, between bike rides to Ojinaga or down to the Rio Grande and simply people-watching at town hubs like The Bean Cafe and Oasis Restaurant.
As an administrative assistant at Fort Leaton State Historic Site and a Presidio native, Arian Velazquez-Ornelas sees Presidio’s situation both as a local and a member of the tourism industry. “I understand where the writer’s coming from,” she said. Maxwell was drawn to Presidio’s sense of rich history, and “that’s kind of what we want to preserve: the actual history of the community,” she said. People have lived in the region for thousands of years, but “there isn’t a whole lot that’s recorded in writing before the Spaniards came.”
Still, Velazquez-Ornelas stressed there isn’t a black-and-white binary between too much tourism and no tourism. “We don’t want to be this huge tourist attraction,” she said. But the current status quo, where “most people just drive through Presidio,” isn’t ideal, either.
In the end, what Velazquez-Ornelas is describing sounds a lot like what drew Maxwell to Presidio — a border town with rich history that doesn’t exist to serve the tourist industry.
“People have been coming here and visited this area for hundreds of years because of its isolation and its primitive landscape,” she said. “People want to see that it’s not Marfa, it’s not the national park.”
“Even when people come to Big Bend Ranch State Park,” she added, “Their mouths drop. The national park is so RV-friendly — and we’re not. You’re going to feel what it’s like to live here for us, where you have to buy tires every year because the terrain is so rough.”