Disputes mount in project to revitalize downtown Presidio 

Photo by Hannah Gentiles / Artist Mariell Guzman works on a new mural that is the center of a controversy involving a nonprofit’s plan to revitalize downtown Presidio.

PRESIDIO –– Tensions flared in last week’s Presidio Municipal Development District meeting after a number of residents raised concerns over how a nonprofit organization is going about its plan to “beautify” downtown.

While the initial controversy surrounded a new mural recently installed right next to Harper Hardware, featuring bright colors and floral designs, the discussion evolved into a larger question of who gets to determine how to beautify the city –– the whole community or just the new residents that operate the nonprofit –– as many of those present at the meeting felt as if they were being left out of the decision-making process.

This new mural installation that kicked the debate into action is just one in a series that are to pop up around downtown as part of a project spearheaded by the nonprofit Presidio Cultural District Association headed by Adèle Jancovici and Matt Stevens, who both moved to Presidio in November 2019. The mural installations, along with the construction of new rock planters, are the first steps in a $40,000 taxpayer-funded bid to beautify the cultural district in the hopes of revitalizing downtown.

Toward the beginning of the PMDD meeting, concerned residents took issue with which artist the PCDA selected for the first mural as she is not from and does not live in Presidio. Mariell Guzman was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and now lives in North Texas. While the aggrieved residents largely refrained from criticizing the mural and Guzman, they did wonder why PCDA, which is overseeing the project and had the final word on who was to create this mural, had not selected a local artist for the first installation.

“We have another local artist that’s on the schedule that lives in Terlingua that is wanting to come here and paint a mural. We have another local artist that is also from Terlingua that is looking at painting a mural,” Stevens, the vice chairman of PCDA, said, insisting that the organization is working on bringing aboard local artists, although many of those attending disagreed with Stevens’ use of the word local.

To which Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, the president of the Visitor Bureau, later replied, “That is not local. That is Terlingua.”

“Your opinion of local is your opinion of local. To me, the region is local. The Big Bend area is local,” Stevens responded.

Jancovici, the chairman of the PCDA, faced similar objections after she said that another artist scheduled for a mural is Miguel Valverde, who –– in her words –– “has done all of the sculptures in Ojinaga,” despite being from Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, over a four-hour drive from Presidio.

The heads of PCDA did say that they were open to working with artists from Presidio, but that they never stated they would work exclusively with them. Jancovici –– who was born in Paris –– went on to say that where she comes from, “It’s also considered an honor to have someone of some acclaim come to your town and create a piece of art that everyone in your community is going to enjoy because it is not an artist whose work has been seen by your community before.”

And Stevens was open about his desire to select internationally-acclaimed artists. “Because guess what? They’re going to bring something that local artists don’t have: international acclaim,” he said.

Stevens then tried to assure those present that the PCDA took great care in selecting the artists and that Jancovici, who also owns the Wet Dream art gallery in town, is uniquely suited for the task. After speaking about Jancovici’s experience in the art world, Stevens said, “She has a unique talent and ability to see artists who are perfect for a situation and where they would fit in. And this is how we came to a decision on this particular mural.”

Back in May 2020, the city council passed a resolution endorsing the recent creation of the PCDA and its efforts to “preserve, promote and enhance Presidio’s rich cultural history.” The resolution stated PCDA’s first priority was to beautify the cultural district and “to emulate in our community a sense of pride, where each individual will want to participate in crafting a town that becomes a luscious example of a slow simple life, a green life, a happy life…”

Yet at last week’s meeting, the concerned residents –– including a Presidio High School graduate, Roxanna Rodriguez, who has a BFA from UT El Paso –– kept asking which Presidian artists the PCDA had scheduled to create a mural, or at least which Presidian artists they had tried to reach out to. “From what I know, and I know many local artists from Presidio –– from what I’ve asked and they’ve told me –– is that none of them have actually gotten a response or any type of inquiry from them or you guys [Jancovici and Stevens],” Rodriguez said.

“We were working just based on what information we had,” Stevens said, later adding that if anyone present knew a local artist, to send them his way, not directly answering the questions regarding whether they had reached out to Presidio-based artists.

“Isn’t that considered your job to find local artists?” Rodriguez responded.

The mural installation is not the only ongoing work done by the PCDA as part of the project; the nonprofit is also constructing rock planters to bring more green life to the area. To find a contractor for the job, the PMDD put out a bid to those interested in creating the planters. A similar bidding process was not used in the case of selecting a mural artist, according to Brad Newton, the executive director of the PMDD and recently-hired city administrator.

And while the PMDD did vote on which contractor to use, the district did not have a public vote on which flora would be purchased with taxpayer money. At last week’s meeting, Velazquez-Ornelas questioned if palm trees, which appear in many of the renderings in PCDA’s project proposal, should be planted. “If you guys are talking about indigenous plants, palm trees are not indigenous to Presidio,” she said.

“I understand what’s indigenous here, but palm trees are also a part of Presidio. Ninety-five percent of this community has palm trees in their backyard,” Stevens responded. “I think that they are part of the culture and they’re a part of this town. Do I want to plant one? I don’t know that we do.”

The last issue at hand had less to do with who has aesthetic control over revamping downtown, but more so with the close relationship between the PMDD and the PCDA. Back in April of this year, Jancovici, the head of the PCDA, was appointed by the city council to the board of the PMDD. And according to the April 7 agenda, the board was set to discuss “selecting [a] bid for a contractor” for the rock planters.

PMDD Executive Director Newton said that Jancovici abstained from the vote in which the board selected a contractor for the planters. That said, PMDD kickstarted this whole beautification project after it gave the initial $40,000 in sales tax revenue to the city for the purposes of the downtown beautification project well before Jancovici had joined the board. As Newton explained it, the city is in charge of doling out the money, about half of which has been spent, directly to the muralists and contractors –– bypassing the PCDA, which never sees any of it.

While the city cut the checks and approved of the beautification project, Mayor John Ferguson said, “all of the actual decisions about what was going to be done, that was never the business of city council, that was all done by PMDD.”

At last week’s meeting, City Councilmember and PMDD Treasurer Nancy Arevalo, while deferring to City Attorney Rod Ponton’s expertise on the matter, asked if it was appropriate to have Jancovici on the board of a group that initially provided the taxpayer funds allowing her nonprofit to start beautifying downtown and has voted on how to proceed with the project.

Jancovici, at the meeting, said that it’s not a conflict of interest so long as she abstains from votes related to the nonprofit’s work.

As the meeting wrapped up, Newton conceded that perhaps those in charge of the mural project hadn’t made the best strides in connecting with local artists. “We didn’t go to the point of saying ‘Oh it’s got to be a Presidio person first.’ Maybe that’s our bad on that one,” he said. And those present came to an uneasy truce after Velazquez-Ornelas agreed to compile a list of local artists that would be interested in creating a mural.

In an interview on Tuesday, Newton said that while the PCDA had the final word on this mural, there would be more consideration on which artist is selected going forward.