Uphill climb for C3 Presents music, art, cultural festival

PRESIDIO COUNTY - C3 Presents now has their work cut out for them if they decide to pursue their plans for a 6,500-person festival on private ranchland north of Marfa. City and county officials spent their first in-person, invitation-only meeting with the organization, meticulously exposing all of the risks, expectations, and needs that C3 will have to address before nabbing the coveted Mass Gatherings and Music Festival permits required for their proposed three-day boutique music and arts festival.

In an agenda created by C3, last week’s private meeting was supposed to include a “Proposed Public Safety Plan” that would address security, medical, fire, emergency preparedness, and traffic and environmental management. However, specific solutions and firm plans were scarce at the Thursday morning meeting.

Instead, C3 gave a rough outline of their festival, and county and city officials gave an earful of concerns. Justice of the Peace David Beebe said after the meeting that the Austin-based festival planners were surprised to learn about many of the concerns for the first time.

The County Emergency Management Coordinator, County Fire Marshal, and Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitchke supported the meeting being behind closed doors. “We’ve not really been in contact with them, so Thursday was the first time we really had any good contact with C3. I really wanted to make sure that we had their undivided attention on the safety issues with the county that we’re worried about.”

But Mitchke stated he felt those issues weren’t really addressed. Instead, “We really threw out our concerns at them, and they have something to work with. They kind of understand our position when it comes to safety in Presidio County now.”

County Judge Cinderela Guevara was optimistic. “I believe they left here with a heightened awareness of the high propensity that this county has for fires.” Fire season is one of the numerous concerns related to hosting a mass gathering in rural Far West Texas.

As C3 announced their numbers have increased to 6,000 ticketed guests, tickets for 500 Marfa locals, and roughly 400 festival personnel, Guevara worried, “Should we need to evacuate everyone, how would we go about that? Now we’re talking about evacuating a population the same amount as what we have in the whole county.”

Nine C3 employees, including founding Partner/Executive Producer Charles Attal, Festival Director Dre Anderson, Local Liaison Vance Knowles, and Ranch Liaison Brent Charlesworth attended the meeting, and local officials stated the C3 folks were eager to listen. The organizers are hoping to host the festival on 250 acres of private ranchland outside of Marfa as soon as next year, even though they had previously stepped back from pursuing a 2020 launch.

Fire risks were high on the list of every official who spoke out after the meeting, but C3 also learned about the spotty cell service, the risk of running out of gasoline, the lack of reverse 911 calling, the high temperatures and dry conditions that come with their proposed May date, and even heard concerns about the amplified effects of alcohol consumption in higher altitudes, courtesy of Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez.

Dr. John Paul Schwartz, who was appointed one day earlier as the County Health Authority, told the festival organizers that he saw a spike in visits for anxiety when the C3 festival was initially announced. “It’s been traumatic for so many people here. I tried to express that as loud and clear as I could that they are causing a major crisis in this community over this. All they see is just angry people pushing back, but they really don’t see it as a big groundswell,” Schwartz said. The doctor has seen an uptick in patients struggling with mental health issues since the festival was announced.

Judge Beebe responded, “They just had no idea that they were going to be blindsided like this.” Attal’s previous forays into Marfa - helping launch Ballroom Marfa (he’s a Ballroom board of director’s member) and hosting the Railroad Revival Tour that drew 2,500 concert-goers to El Cosmico several years ago - didn’t have a lot of pushback. “That wasn’t that long ago to his mind. To us though, a lot of things have changed since then.” Beebe cites growing public distrust in corporations, especially since the controversial TransPecos Pipeline came through the county in 2016.

The public has become a major player in the discussions, despite being prevented from attending the first large gathering of C3 and public officials. A group mostly comprised of relative newcomers has spoken out against the festival, organized an action group and citizen advisory committee, and even gathered to protest outside last Thursday’s event.

While Mitchke and Guevara defended the need for a private meeting to create focus around certain issues and allow officials to direct the conversation, certain attendees asserted that the closed-door meeting sowed further public distrust.

Dr. Schwartz gave C3 the benefit of the doubt, but disagreed with the private meeting. “I think they’re sincere in wanting to do the right things here, but their ability and working with the public, it’s got a long way to go.”

Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez took a similar tack, wanting the meeting to be public. When speaking to C3 during the meeting, “I brought up the point that we had a lot of people that were standing outside waiting to see the results or find out what’s going on so I just advised them that the way the venue was switched three times didn’t look very good either,” Marquez suggested.

“Our responsibility, our loyalty, is to the public. When we walked out of that meeting we were going to have to answer to them.” Marquez added that the frenetic location shifts didn’t come from C3, but from Judge Guevara and Mitchke, but the pair say the repeated venue changes and the final location at the cloistered firehouse were simply a matter of comfort and convenience.

Judge Beebe believes that the county is partially to blame for the public outcry. “The county has made numerous mistakes on this.” Beebe, like many citizens who turned out to contest it, was frustrated by the commissioner’s court action item to consider approving the permit applications one day ahead of the C3 meeting.

“The fact that they tried to pass it on the idea that ‘we need to pass this today,’ and nobody had even seen it the day before, was a dramatic miscalculation of the County Judge, whichever commissioners were involved in that, and probably the county attorney. That was another way for the public to say, ‘Why?’ Why is this happening now? We’re totally in the dark.”

Mistrust in county officials has grown in the past year, and Beebe points to the county commissioner convicted of public corruption, the recent late hours liquor license controversy, and his own concerns about county campaign financing. He believes that the public is watching closely because they feel uncertain their elected officials will behave in their interest if not under public observation.

Many new concerns were raised at the meeting, and C3’s mitigation plans are still largely nascent, but Chief Marquez said C3 “did make a couple statements that kind of worked out some of the concerns. They were saying something about limiting the foot traffic into town.” The company proposed that ticketholders would not be able to take their vehicles out of the festival once they’d arrived. Those who wished to visit Marfa would be shuttled in, and only to locations interested in participating. That’s just one of the ideas they had.

After warnings about the dry and windy conditions of May in West Texas, the company was open to putting it on the calendar for September or October, or potentially holding off until 2021. Attal and company also suggested they were looking into busing groups in from Austin and El Paso to mitigate some traffic, bringing in a helicopter for medical evacuations, and cutting a firebreak around the event on the ranch. They recognized the importance of providing extra ambulances, since Marfa and Presidio County hardly have enough EMS vehicles for their own population, much less a doubled population where festival goers are exposed to heat, alcohol, and, as with most modern music festivals, potential illicit drug use. The organizers are planning to provide at least 200 security personnel from a private San Antonio company, and their own suite of nurses and paramedics on site.

If a burn ban was in place that prevented them from cooking with heat during the festival, Attal responded they would just serve sandwiches, revealing his willingness to make it work. “Short story is that they will do anything they can to meet whatever demands there are,” Beebe opined.

Though Mitchke had helped coordinate the meeting, it was clear he wasn’t fully on board with the event at this time. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s going to take a lot for me to feel comfortable about it. I think I’ve been pretty candid about that. I have some major concerns.” Mitchke continued, “But all of that being said, if they address all those things and you can honestly say, ‘I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t,’ I’ll have to say it’s fine with me, we’re prepared.”

Mitchke doesn’t want all future meetings to be private. “I told C3, really you have two things you need to address: you need to address all of our concerns as emergency responders, law enforcement, fire, EMS, but once you get past that, you need to convince the public it’s okay. They need to get in front of the public.”

Judge Beebe believes C3 now understands “that a lot of the issues may not be things that they can meet, unless they want to spend more money than they can make.” He said C3 may be willing to spend that money, and in the meeting, C3 indicated they are willing to operate at a loss for the first three years of the festival. They were not willing to say they would put a firm cap on the number of attendees in the future, only that they would only increase numbers if they believed they could handle the risks.

Beebe concluded, “I do think that there were enough officials and people there that there’s no way they’re going to be able to like walk away with a permit without actually reaching some very high barriers.” Aside from C3’s coming decisions, Beebe is glad to see that the county is facing choices too. “This is pushing some things to the table that we have not dealt with as leadership, or even really as a community.” It is still uncertain whether C3 will ultimately decide to rise to the occasion and create a plan; even more so, it’s unsure whether the plan will earn them a Mass Gathering Permit. Regardless of the outcome, Judge Beebe is optimistic for the county. Whether the event lives or dies, “The specter of this event may push us to making some good decisions. I’m hopeful for it.”

Sarah M. Vasquez contributed to this story.

The Big Bend Sentinel

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Marfa, TX 79843