The Marfa boom has been going on long enough that it was parody-ready for The Simpsons earlier this year. But the city’s standout traits—the art, the lights, the landscape—have also put the town in a uniquely challenging situation: it relies on tourism, but it also doesn’t want to see the small-town charms that make it such a draw crowded out by more growth than it’s able to handle.
When C3 Presents—the Austin-based concert promotion and events company that puts on the Austin City Limits Festival, Lollapalooza, and 1,500 other live-music events a year—announced in February that they planned to launch a Marfa-based festival in May 2020, the town’s challenges came into sharp relief. C3 execs told Marfa mayor Ann Marie Nafziger that they hoped to bring 5,000 people to the town. That’s a far smaller festival than the events C3 puts on in cities like Austin, Chicago, Brazil, and Paris, but it would still bring in an audience of more than twice the population of Marfa itself to the town. Marfa is no stranger to festivals, but they’re much smaller than C3’s proposal. The biggest annual event is the Trans-Pecos Music Festival, which Austin-based hotelier Liz Lambert founded at her El Cosmico compound in 2006; it draws an estimated 1,500 to the town for a weekend each fall.
Local residents panicked at the C3 announcement—and over the weekend, the company told leaders that they planned to hold off on their proposal to bring the festival to Marfa in 2020.
What prompted the vocal pushback? “It’s not really just one reason; it’s across the board—it’s exhausting, really, to think of it,” explains Buck Johnston, a Marfa city councilwoman and the owner of the Wrong Store in town. “Just pick a topic: environmental impact, infrastructure, garbage, roads and streets out here, fire safety, scale, night sky, sound. Pick any of those topics, and pretty much we can tell you why an event of that size would just be a disaster for our community.”
Johnston opposed the festival on practical grounds, but she says that there was more to it than just concerns about getting enough water to festival attendees. The practical may have been the first thing that the community rallied around, but she’s aware that C3 can find ways to ease those concerns. “They can say, ‘We’re going to bring out twenty fire trucks, we’re going to bring out twenty ambulances, we’re going to give the City of Marfa ten percent of ticket sales to go to their city streets and help with infrastructure. And those things are hard to argue,” she says. “But when you start talking about the culture, these are things they cannot argue against. Our city is fragile. We are small. One person can come here and make a difference, whether that be good or bad.”
In a statement released Monday evening, C3 said postponing the festival would give it more time to study the effects its event would have, both positive and negative, on the area, including the concerns spelled out by Johnston. C3 said it planned to work openly with the community, adding, “Our intention from the beginning has been to build a small, unique and temporary three-day event that would take place in the vicinity of a great cultural hub, and collectively develop a plan that would have a positive economic, educational, and cultural impact on the surrounding area of West Texas.”
Marfa has been beset by new residents as the city’s profile has risen, creating tensions between the long-timers and the newcomers that aren’t easy to resolve. To some extent, the idea of putting a festival of 5,000 people in the area highlighted those divisions, even though she says that a lot of the new-to-Marfa folks rallied around the idea that the festival wasn’t right for the town.
“I’ve been here eighteen years, and we definitely go through waves of anti-newcomer to where we’re all one big happy family. But I’ve never felt Marfa feel this way before,” she says. “We’ve really gotten the word out about this, and the tension in this town was horrible. People were really stressed out about this. I think in some ways it definitely brought the community together, but also it was divisive.”
C3 gave word over the weekend that the festival wouldn’t be happening in 2020, but its future is still a question. The company didn’t have a statement available at press time, but Johnston still worries that a 2021 version of the festival might be in the offing. Because of the rapid growth of the ACL Festival, which quickly expanded from two days to three, and then from one weekend to two, she suspects that the best way to ensure that whatever future festival may appear remains within the control of the community to establish a policy around this kind of event. To that end, Johnston says that she and the rest of the forces in Marfa that mobilized around this are planning to use the reprieve to lobby the Presidio County commissioners to create a permitting process that would give the local community more of a voice in proposals like this—with the first organizing meeting coming just days after this victory.
In another controversial issue earlier this year that points to Marfa’s growing pains, the county commissioners upset some residents by voting to let local businessman Tim Crowley, owner of Marfa’s Hotel Saint George, sell alcohol on property he owns just outside of town until 2 a.m. every day, even though Marfa’s bars can serve only until midnight (1 a.m. on Saturdays). The property, on the site of the old Stardust Motel, lies outside of city regulations.
Regardless of what the future holds, though, Johnston says that the news from the weekend means that things in Marfa are a little less dire. “It’s just been a giant release,” she says. “Oh my goodness, I’m so glad we’re not having to fight this battle again or continue this battle. It’s just been such a great sense of release.”