A barrel of risks for Cedar Rapids' newbo evolve festival

The site of the stage for the newbo evolve festival is seen behind the Ideal Social Hall in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. Go Cedar Rapids, formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, is sponsoring the event, which will take place over three days at the beginning of August. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The site of the stage for the newbo evolve festival is seen behind the Ideal Social Hall in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. Go Cedar Rapids, formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau, is sponsoring the event, which will take place over three days at the beginning of August. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

So 2018 will be the year we get to watch thrill-seekers brave a very high wire in Cedar Rapids.

And I’m not talking about the “Cedar Screamer” zip line.

It’s GO Cedar Rapids that will be taking the all-caps risks with its lowercase August festival, newbo evolve. The city’s tourism entity announced the three-day, $4 million-plus festival with plenty of fanfare this week. Headlines were grabbed by its musical headliners, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5.

“Who’s got the moves like Jagger? Cedar Rapids, that’s who,” said The Des Moines Register.

“Another day, another new festival,” said WJBD radio in Illinois.

More than another music festival, newbo evolve is intended to channel “the creative Bohemian spirit through music, fashion, dance, food and technology.” Along with a 10-story tall zip line across the Cedar River.

“Let’s go big. Let’s give the people what they deserve,” Aaron McCreight, president and CEO of GO Cedar Rapids told me this week.

Among the people, at least those weighing in on social media, it was the festival’s price tag that got most of the attention. Three-day passes to newbo evolve cost $375. There will be 4,000 available, and only for people over 18. This did not sit well in all corners of a frugal, family-friendly city.

Organizers are quick to point out cheaper tickets will be available for Clarkson and Maroon 5, concerts open to all ages. But if you’re hoping to buy a one-day festival pass or tickets to individual speaker sessions or workshops, at this point, you’re out of luck.

Bohemians are free spirits, to be sure. For everything else, you need a pass.

“We were very conscious of price and wanted to make it affordable. And we feel like $375 for what is offered is a great price,” McCreight said, pointing out a pass provides all access and premium concert seats. And ticketing policy, like so much about the festival, still is evolving.

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Truth be told, this is a town where “boondoggle!” is a default reaction to announcements such as this. Often, naysayers are flat wrong. I’m not joining that chorus. I want this festival to succeed.

But obstacles are many, and daunting. Access is one issue. The passes are pricey for this market. Planned events are meant to appeal to a broad cross section of people, but limited access will narrow the festival’s draw. There’s no youth programing.

The financial risk is enormous, at upward of $4 million. Backers point to South by Southwest, Burning Man and TED Talks as successful models, but these now-huge events started much less huge and grew organically over time due to their appeal. GO Cedar Rapids is going big out of the gate, without a net.

As much as success would be a huge win, failure would damage the city’s brand and, more importantly, douse future ambitions. Even if it succeeds, what’s left in the tank for next year if all stops are pulled out in 2018?

“It’s a big barrel. We’ve had a lot of eyeballs on it,” McCreight said. “We feel very, very confident that this works, philosophically, emotionally and financially. Or, quite honestly, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

I hope he’s right, or screaming along the Cedar will echo well beyond August.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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