CEDAR RAPIDS — Ethan Olson, 28, and Jacob Wittrock, 43, decided to splurge for their birthdays and get each other three-day passes to “newbo evolve,” a festival going on in this weekend in Cedar Rapids.
The couple liked the lineup — everything from fashion to Olympics to charm school — and the more they examined it the more they noticed an LGBTQ undercurrent.
“It was never billed as an LGBTQ event, but there’s everything from Carson Kressley to Christian Siriano; it was an event we wanted to be part of,” Wittrock said.
“And Adam Rippon,” Olson added, “he could go anywhere. It’s crazy he’s coming to Cedar Rapids, of all the places he could be.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, an LGBTQ spotlight has been shining on Cedar Rapids this weekend as newbo evolve occurs, a welcome mark of inclusivity for the community, some attendees said.
Saturday — day two of the three-day signature festival — packed in talks by fashion expert Kressley, Olympic figure skater Rippon and film producer and comedian John Waters, dodged rain and concluded with a concert by Maroon 5. Celebrity speakers spotted at the concert included Waters, Kressley, woodworker Clint Harp and author Adam Berinsky.
Several of the top talent featured at newbo evolve are gay celebrities, including Kressley and fashion designer Siriano, Rippon and Waters. They shared their stories and experiences on a range of topics.
Publications well beyond the borders of Cedar Rapids and Iowa have taken note.
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New York City-based Metro Source, a LGBTQ publication, lists newbo evolve on its events page, and Lavender, a Twin Cities-area LGBTQ publication, identified newbo evolve as a “GLBT-friendly” event.
Aaron McCreight, president of GO Cedar Rapids, which is producing the event, said the tourism agency didn’t intentionally target an LGBTQ crowd, but did attend several gay pride events as part of its marketing push.
GO Cedar Rapids also worked with One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, on a ticket giveaway.
“We were looking for people who had stories to tell that are relevant to today, are inspiring and people would want to hear,” McCreight said.
Brian Smith, who identifies as gay, said he wanted to participate in newbo evolve because it sounded like an exciting event, and that the involvement of several LGBTQ speakers was the “cherry on top.”
At the Friday evening Kelly Clarkson concert Smith, 46, and a couple of his friends were talking about “whatever gay men talk about” and a group of women nearby chimed in.
“It was very affirming,” Smith said. “It shows, for maybe the everyday goer of the festival, what impact that LGBTQ people have on culture and arts and inspiration.”
Gabriel Ray Carnes, 33, of Des Moines, came over from Des Moines specifically to attend the session with Rippon. Rippon discussed his approach to being unapologetically who he is, and advocated for others in the LGBTQ community.
Carnes was able to question Rippon during the session about how to bridge the gap between being gay and also being Christian — two communities that don’t always see eye-to-eye. Rippon urged him to be true to himself, uphold his Christian values, and in doing so he could shine a positive light on the LGBTQ community.
“Cedar Rapids is lucky to have this,” Carnes said. “I hope more people come in the future, but I was glad to have it intimate like this.”
Kara Heying attended the Carson Kressley session Saturday with her daughter, Regan Heying, and Anne Parmley and her daughter, Lauren Parmley.
“Topics like this, like with Carson, here you brought two mothers and daughters willing to come together. Which for us, any time our 18-year-olds want to do, we’re super happy,” Kara Heying said. “So someone like Carson was able to pull people like that together, it’s not just about the gay community or not gay community. It’s about community.”
The festival, billed as a celebration of art, culture and music the likes of which Cedar Rapids has not seen before, mixed three days of celebrity speakers with major headliners Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5. While tickets were available for the individual concerts, three-day passes selling for $400 apiece were required to attend the speakers, as well as the other events.
GO Cedar Rapids has declined to say how many tickets were sold, but several businesses in NewBo that had ramped up to serve the large crowds organizers predicted said they were underwhelmed.
Organizers had been predicting 10,000 to 15,000 people per day.
Lindsey Podzimek, owner of the Eduskate skateboard shop, has been critical of NewBo road closures disrupting business during a crucial time — tax-free weekend.
She began screen printing T-shirts declaring “Free NewBo,” and sold 15 to 20 of them. The sales helped, she said.
“Everybody believes any time you have an event down here it’s great for all of the businesses down here, but most of the time when there’s a big event and roads are closed, businesses suffer,” she said. “Let’s go back to the way it was before this neighborhood was used for every event.”
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Carrie Schumacher, owner of Caucho, a taco restaurant and bar, said business doubled compared with Friday, but still was a bit slow. Staff were fresh squeezing six gallons of orange juice for a pop-up brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s been slower, but that being said, we are happy to contribute to the evolution of the neighborhood. We need to do these things for growth to happen,” she said, adding she hopes the festival happens again next year.
Elsewhere, Rebecca and Ralph Dorales, of Charter Oak in Western Iowa, said Saturday they’ve enjoyed being in downtown Cedar Rapids.
“We’ve been enjoying the farmers market out here,” Rebecca Dorale, 62, said.
Ralph Dorale, 62, said the speaker session on woodworking by Harp was another highlight.
“I like the art stuff. … It’s kind of neat to go through and see other peoples’ ideas,” he said.
Jennifer Rigdon, 50, bought her gold pass as soon as she read about newbo evolve in The Gazette, while husband-and-wife Alex and Rachel Rigdon got theirs at a fundraiser.
On Friday, Jennifer and Rachel, 27, attended Christian Siriano’s session and Alex, 27, went to the Kelly Clarkson concert.
Saturday, the three of them got up early for goat yoga at 7:45 a.m.
“You just do yoga and the goats just walk around, and they’ll stand on people. They licked my legs, they lay on your mat,” Alex explained.
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Diana Nollen of The Gazette contributed to this report.