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Beautification Project Prompts Debate Over Who Makes Decisions For Presidio

In Presidio, a beautification project led by a new nonprofit has prompted heated debate over the city’s approach to downtown development. Tensions recently came to a head over a publicly funded mural, with locals and their new neighbors offering differing visions for the city’s priorities. | Lea esta nota en español

By Annie Rosenthal

Over the past month and a half, a beautification project has caused controversy in Presidio, prompting heated public debate over the city’s approach to downtown development.

A nonprofit called the Presidio Cultural District Association is spearheading the effort to revitalize Presidio’s downtown area, which is funded by the Presidio Municipal Development District. Tensions between the nonprofit’s founders –– a couple who arrived in Presidio in 2019 –– and a vocal group of locals recently came to a head over the nonprofit’s choice of an outside artist to paint a mural on O’Reilly Street.

Marfa Public Radio’s Annie Rosenthal spoke with Morning Edition host Barbara Anguiano about why the project has caused so much friction in town, and what the takeaways have been as the city looks to the future.

Conversation Highlights

On the nonprofit’s choice of a muralist

At a PMDD meeting in August, multiple artists from Presidio questioned the PCDA’s founders about how they decided on the artist for a new mural next door to Harper Hardware. Several people said they were glad to see a revitalization project underway, but wondered why the PCDA had not reached out to locals who might want to contribute –– instead choosing a North Texas muralist.

“We were working just based on what information we had,” said Matt Stevens, cofounder of the PCDA. He said that pandemic restrictions had prevented them from working with a muralist who’d done work in Ojinaga, and that the nonprofit planned to produce more murals. He also said they were also considering artists in Terlingua.

“Sir, I’d like to say something regarding that. That is not local,” said Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, head of the Presidio visitor bureau.

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

On differing visions for public art in Presidio

Stevens said that the cultural district was open to working with Presidio artists in the future, and asked those who were interested to get in touch. But he said that finding local collaborators wasn’t the association’s only priority. “We want local artists, but we also want internationally acclaimed artists to come here,” he said. “Because, guess what? They're going to bring something that local artists don't have: international acclaim.” He added that work by well-known artists would bring more attention to locals by proximity.

Velazquez-Ornelas said she thought that it made more sense to focus on highlighting Presidio artists. “These people all started in their local communities,” she said. “If we foster that in our local community, and we bring that notoriety to these people who are maybe just starting out –– that may not have this great, you know, art in grand museums like you grew up with, but they all started somewhere. So I think this community needs to support that first and foremost.” She said she thought that in the future, the city council should use a bidding process for projects funded with taxpayer money.

On local frustrations with the nonprofit’s approach to collaboration

“I don't have a problem with people coming in and helping,” said Velazquez-Ornelas in an interview. “But when they're not even communicating with the people who have been doing something like this for so many years...why aren’t you engaging with us?”

Roxana Rodriguez, an artist who graduated from Presidio High School in 2017 and earned her BFA at UT El Paso, was among those who joined the PMDD meeting by Zoom to voice her concerns with the PCDA’s approach.

“When you're talking about gentrification, you guys are literally doing that right now. You're coming in here with this, I guess ego and this sense of, like, I'm better than you. Kind of classist,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to the people that are living here, and they know the culture and they've been here longer than you have.”

On the road forward

At the end of the meeting, City Administrator Brad Newton asked for a list of artists from Presidio who’d be interested in working on future projects. Newton, who headed the PMDD until recently, said in an interview that the city may have made a mistake in not looking more actively for a Presidio artist, but that city projects rely on people coming forward to offer their visions and services.

“Bring us an idea, we'll figure out how to get you a mural,” said Newton. “You have to come into City Hall –– citizen participation. Come in with your ideas, just like the cultural district did, they came in with an idea.”

Tensions continued to flare at the next city council meeting, where Velazquez-Ornelas raised further questions about the PCDA’s vision and authority downtown –– including their plans to zone a cultural district.

On August 31, city council members voted to rescind a May 2020 resolution in support of the PCDA. Mayor John Ferguson cautioned against doing that, asking, “How is Presidio –– how are we –– damaged by what has happened?” Later, in an interview, he said, “Everybody was trying to do something positive for the city...And when you look at the results, they’re there.”

PCDA cofounder Adèle Jancovici declined to talk on the record about the project, but shared this written statement: “We’re very disappointed in the actions of the Tourism bureau, of the City, of PMDD, and of city council because ultimately the people they have hurt are the people of Presidio, and this community deserves better than status quo.” Jancovici resigned from the PMDD in late August.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.