Communities that depend heavily on tourism, like Marfa, Texas, are reeling from the effects of COVID-19. How will resilient communities find creative ways to weather the current crisis?
Freight trains rumble through the far west Texas town of Marfa throughout the day, passing through the center of town, flanked on either side by Main Street. The Marfa Mystery Lights, an infamous tourist attraction of unexplained luminescent orbs, still glimmer a few miles outside of town. One thing, however, is noticeably missing from Marfa’s desert landscape these days: tourists.
Marfa, like many other tourist destinations around the country, relies heavily on its restaurants, hotels, art spaces, and local businesses. The town began closing businesses and limited gatherings to no more than 10 people on March 19th, and by March 27th
Marfa’s City Council had voted unanimously to issue a Shelter-In-Place order. Presidio County has just one case of COVID19, a blessing for a region with limited healthcare resources. Protecting residents and visitors has been top of mind for this community of 1800 people. The closures, however, come with a cost.
The sudden impact of shuttered businesses was felt hardest by service industry professionals, who make up over 20% of Marfa’s community. That’s why residents Shelley Bernstein, Rainer Judd, Ian Lewis, Carolyn Pfeiffer, and Susan Kirr, created Marfa Steps Up, a volunteer organization which has facilitated two initiatives to help support residents affected by Covid-19.
Marfa Steps Up’s first initiative was a GoFundMe campaign called “The Service Worker Relief Fund.” The campaign benefited service and hospitality workers by raising an impressive $47,297.62 in just two weeks. The campaign provided direct assistance to 175 service professionals in the form of grocery store gift cards, an idea suggested by Emily Williams, General Manager of the Hotel St. George. This initiative provided direct assistance to service industry workers while supporting two local grocers at the same time.
Those grocery stores–Porters and The Get Go–contributed an additional $5400+ to the fund, bringing the gift card amount to an even $300 per recipient.
The second initiative, “Marfa Solidarity Bonds,” is currently active and raising funds to support twelve local restaurants, including Al Campo, Marfa Aster, Cochineal, Convenience West, Do Your Thing, El Camino Cafe, Food Shark, Frama, Jett’s Grill, Planet Marfa, The Sentinel, and The Water Shop.
Solidarity bonds created by local Marfa artists are being sold in denominations starting at $10, with 50% of the face value of the bond going directly to the participating establishments. The remaining 50% of the bond can be used as a gift certificate at the establishment at a later time, or the bond can be framed and appreciated as artwork.
Participating artists have created solidarity bonds inspired by their community. Those artists include Maryam Amiryani, Mary Baxter, Camp Bosworth, LéAna Clifton, J.D.
Garcia, Jeffrey Hester, Martha Hughes, Zoe Leonard, Eileen Myles, Dustin Pevey, Sam Schonzeit, Shea Slemmer, Julie Speed, Nick Terry, Laszlo Thorsen-Nagel, Charline von Heyl, Leslie Wilkes, and Christopher Wool.
Jeffrey Hester, painter and owner of RangeFinder West Texas Expeditions, spoke about life in this West Texas community. “Marfa has a tourist-driven community. We support the arts, are a gateway to Big Bend, and we count on people passing through our community. Life here really requires a lot of improvising.” He continued to say that the community is known for supporting each other and coming together in times of need.
Communities seeking solutions to survive uncertain times can learn several lessons from Marfa Steps Up, whose grass-roots efforts have had a mighty impact. First, collaborate with residents and utilize the unique talents and skills of neighbors. Second, define the problem in detail, and think about it holistically. Consider who’s being affected and how can communities create initiatives that benefit multiple populations, i.e., residents and small businesses, students and educators, etc. Finally, get creative. Marfa’s initiative, like Middleburg, Virginia’s Meal Voucher Program, has generated solutions to short-term food scarcity while creating a sustainable future for residents and small businesses.
Marfa’s resiliency reminds us why so many have fallen in love with the small desert town that’s “tough to get to; tougher to explain,” as the local brochures boast. The hospitality in this small town is easy to come by, and the roots of the community run deep. Camp Bosworth, a long-time Marfa resident, says “Living in Marfa, is like living in a great neighborhood.”