Marfa City Council throws weight behind new tourism app, appoints interim judge

MARFA — At last Thursday’s regular meeting, Marfa City Council enthusiastically discussed an app presented by Director of Tourism Abby Boyd that could help business owners and locals address the dreaded question, “What’s open today?” 

“Right now, every business is acting as its own visitors center,” Boyd said, outlining a common scenario: a Marfa visitor walks into the nearest business that happens to be open, and asks what else there is to do in town. In the next few months, tourists may have a more streamlined way of putting together itineraries, thanks to an app dreamed up by Boyd and representatives from other communities along the Texas Mountain Trail, a tourism corridor spanning the Guadalupe Mountains all the way to the Big Bend parks. 

Boyd hopes to apply for Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant funding for an app that visitors to the region can pull up on their phones, pointing them to shops, restaurants, landmarks and other points of interest, as well as extended tours based on their areas of interest. At Thursday’s meeting, she demonstrated a tour hosted on the platform STQRY, which provides GPS-triggered audio and visual content as users navigate from one point of interest to the next, and tapped local IT specialist Elbert Bassham for the needed programming. 

Through apps like STQRY, users can choose a theme — history, art, architecture, nature — to customize their experience, and the app runs off of GPS, not cell data, alleviating concerns about poor connectivity in the more remote reaches of the Big Bend. 

“I think it’s interesting from a regional perspective, because the tourists in Fort Davis are not the same as the tourists in Marfa,” said City Attorney Teresa Todd. “But there are a few things that do transcend.” 

The discussion raised an interesting question: does the council need to be working to increase tourism, even as local businesses are struggling to keep up with staffing demands and residents still harbor fears about pandemic safety? 

“I don’t know that we need to boost our numbers, but this is a generous offering,” said Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda. “It could improve the quality of their experience — maybe making them stay another night while they do a day trip down to Presidio.” 

The council moved to work with other interested communities and apply for funding as a collective under the Rio Grande Council of Governments. 

The council also moved to appoint Viviana Cataño, who is currently municipal judge for the city of Presidio, as interim municipal judge for the city of Marfa. Cataño will fill the vacancy left by David Beebe, who stepped down from his position at the end of the last fiscal year. 

“I have worked with her all the way back since 1994,” said Todd. “She knows this job inside and out, and she has already done all the training.”

Noting that many of the municipal judge’s duties happen in the middle of the night, Todd explained that Cataño will mostly be working virtually until her post ends on January 11, 2022. There will be a council meeting that day, during which Beebe’s permanent replacement will be selected. 

In miscellaneous business, the city rubber-stamped its support for Operation Lone Star, the final moving piece in securing $417,500 in funding for the Marfa Police Department through the governor’s initiative to support law enforcement in border communities. The money will go to support police overtime, salary for an administrative assistant and costs associated with building leases and equipment. 

The council also received a call from Justin Till of Lyda Strategies, a political consulting firm, with updates from the third special legislative session that wrapped October 19 in Austin. In reference to the controversy over redistricting roiling in other parts of Texas, he put it simply: “No monumental changes are in store for you guys.”

Update: A previous version of this story quoted city attorney Teresa Todd as saying she met the new interim municipal judge in 1984. She actually met judge Viviana Cataño in 1994. We regret the error. Director of Tourism Abby Boyd would also like to clarify that while she presented the tourism app at the meeting, the idea of bringing a tourism app to Marfa originated from local resident Elbert Bassham.