City council reviews new website, Marfa and Presidio County Museum restoration, tourism marketing

MARFA — This week’s regular city council meeting kicked off with a preview of the city’s new website on the big screen. 

Mayor Manny Baeza and all council members were present. City Manager Mandy Roane led the tour of the new and improved website, which is not yet live. The site is fitted with Google translator assistance, a search bar where city ordinances can be discovered, and easily accessible buttons featuring the most clicked-on topics — council agendas and minutes, forms and permits, bill pay, and the calendar. 

“Everything you can find in more than one place, so it’s a little more intuitive,” said Roane. 

On web browsers, aerial photographs showcasing the town’s landscape head pages; on mobile devices, things are paired down for easy access. One of the goals of the new site is to help make the city administration office more accessible and tech savvy by offering ways for citizens to pay Airbnb or hotel occupancy tax (HOT) fees online and access documents like food establishment permits without coming into City Hall. 

The site also offers greater transparency and accessibility, and will include staff photos, a contact directory, and be fully ADA accessible. The “visit” button will automatically launch users into a new tab in order to prevent tourists from getting lost on the city’s website. The current site, visitmarfa.com, will be redirected to the new site. The utilities side of the site where locals go to pay bills is also being upgraded. 

Roane said they are still tweaking the website’s content and flow but it should be done soon, with the utilities upgrade following sometime later. 

The next substantial topic discussed by council was whether or not to consider establishing a long-term lease for The Marfa and Presidio County Museum in order to make them eligible to receive franchise tax credits for renovations. Downtown Marfa is in the process of becoming a nationally-recognized Central Historic District, which would allow for buildings that are a part of the register to receive tax credits from the state for historic restorations — those credits can often cover 20 to 40 percent of construction budgets. But city-owned buildings do not qualify, thus the reason for the lease.

“I just think it’s such a good program that this project is 100 percent going to qualify [for]. And it would boost that budget by at least $40,000,” said Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda.

The city recently released an RFP for engineering services for the museum and will likely go out for a construction bid after they discover more about the building’s integrity and establish priorities. 

Councilmember Ben-Yehuda said the process typically involves starting on a project and submitting documentation before the state approves the franchise tax credits. Franchise tax credits received must then be sold, sometimes with the help of a broker, to receive cash. It would be the museum’s responsibility to sell the tax credits, said Ben-Yehuda. A project must still be under construction and not completely finished in order to qualify for the tax credits, he said.

“I still think it’s a good enough chunk of money. And if we’re committed to doing more work on this building, I think it’s a really good program for us to be aware of and understand to be able to reap the benefits,” said Ben-Yehuda. 

Councilmember Ben-Yehuda said he spoke with the same consultant the Judd and Chinati foundations are working with and they were open to assisting with the museum project. The city budgeted $218,556.51 for museum repairs this fiscal year and intends to spend that money on the project, but a lease may complicate things, said council members. 

Most were interested in the prospect, and City Attorney Teresa Todd was directed to work on a draft lease, which has to be at least 39 years to qualify for the tax credit program. Todd said she has a lot on her plate and may not be able to get to the lease for a couple of months. Ben-Yehuda is to keep fact-finding. A few council members also expressed interest in talking to the Marfa and Presidio County Museum Board, to which council plans to reach out. 

Next, Director of Tourism Abby Boyd took the floor to seek council approval to hire two new advertising-related vendors. She was joined by guests zooming in, Julie Kunkle of data company Zartico, and representatives of marketing company TheoryPraxis.

Boyd started her presentation by explaining how one of her long-term goals is to better control Marfa’s narrative through city-produced advertising rather than by relying on whatever social media influencers or mainstream magazines are saying about the town.

“Marfa didn’t have much of a voice in the story of why people should come here, what they should do while they’re here, what our values are and what we think they should know before they come,” said Boyd.

Zartico, a data collection company, would provide a digital dashboard, utilizing anonymized data collected from people’s cellular devices, including the Apple weather application, to help Boyd better understand Marfa’s visitors, she said. Metrics like where people are visiting from, where they are staying, how long they stay, what other adjacent towns or attractions they visit, and an average spend-amount would help the city do more targeted advertising and appeal to more niche groups other than just the art crowd, said Boyd. 

The effort is in partnership with the City of Alpine, and each city will pay $10,000 for a year’s worth of tourism data. Boyd argued the service is a smart use of HOT funds — $10,000 can be the cost of one billboard. 

The marketing company Boyd is in conversation with, TheoryPraxis, would help use the data collected by Zartico to create digital marketing materials, perform a brand review, update written collateral and create design templates for a total of $12,000. Boyd said it is important for the city to update with digital marketing versus solely regional print advertising. 

When asked by Councilmember Buck Johnston what Boyd’s ultimate goal was for these new initiatives, she responded that it was for Marfa locals to be the author of Marfa’s story. 

“This is not about trying to bring everybody back to Marfa or saturate us with visitors. This is about herding the cat that’s already out of the bag and advertising to an audience of people who are knowledgeable about Marfa and encouraging return trips,” said Boyd. 

Boyd said the town has a lot to offer in addition to the arts scene, and at the visitor’s center she has conversations with visitors frequently about the military history, dark skies and natural landscape, for example. Ben-Yehuda said he liked the overall direction of reclaiming Marfa’s story and thought these two marketing projects would be a good use of HOT funds.

“I think you make a really convincing point about us delivering and owning our identity a little bit more than we have in the past — more consistently, more professionally. And hopefully, more authentically,” said Ben-Yehuda. 

Mayor Baeza chimed in, inquiring to the heart of the matter, “What is our identity?” 

Boyd said she has begun crafting the narrative in forthcoming ads which focus on border culture and the town’s history, not just the legacy of Donald Judd. 

Councilmember Raul Lara was for the proposals, and suggested trying it for a year to see how it goes. Ultimately, the council unanimously approved Boyd’s requests to hire the two vendors. 

The council concluded by hearing the city manager and police chief reports and council member announcements. Roane reported the ambulance remount was yet again being pushed back to March 17, but that EMS Director Bert Lagarde was closely following the issue. Roane said the city’s food establishment permit application is now online, and code compliance and public works would be going out soon to check on grease traps. 

Regarding staff updates, she said Utilities Clerk Lori Flores is training on the new payment software and the city is hoping to hire a new bookkeeper by the end of the week. Roane also thanked first responders, City Secretary Kelly Perez, and the local fire department for assisting with the accident on Monday, in which an undocumented migrant was injured by a garbage truck in a dumpster nearby. 

“You expect from first responders, but you don’t expect your city secretary and your street supervisor to always do that, so I just want to say thank you to everyone,” said Roane. 

Councilmember Johnston wanted to thank city staff for their hard work submitting a grant application to the Texas Water Development Board, in which the city requested $30 million for 25 projects in Presidio County, many within Marfa city limits. Johnston said she would continue to help with the effort after leaving council, and is hopeful the city will qualify for the funding. 

Corrections: A previous version of this story stated the city applied for $3 million in grants from the Texas Water Development Board — in fact, the city applied for $30 million. A previous version of this story also identified the marketing company that Director of Tourism Abby Boyd has been approved to hire for digital marketing purposes as Theory Practice — the company is in fact called TheoryPraxis. The Sentinel regrets these errors.