CEDAR RAPIDS — One of the top acts to perform at this summer’s “newbo evolve,” film director John Waters was among an untold number of vendors and performers still owed money when GO Cedar Rapids folded after declaring a $2.3 million loss on the three-day festival.
The 72-year-old screenwriter, visual artist and stand-up comedian performed a one-man spoken word lecture Aug. 4 entitled “This Filthy World” to a packed room at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
Without providing specific amounts, Waters said part of his fee was paid up front and that the rest was supposed to be paid after the festival.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and this is only the third time I’ve been ripped off, so I don’t like your city,” Waters said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Who would have thought the city of Cedar Rapids would have ripped me off? I’m not going back there and I’m going to tell anyone who asks not to go there.”
While city officials have distanced themselves from the GO Cedar Rapids tourism and convention agency, which was a separate entity, the negative reaction of Waters raises the question of what impacts the tourism industry here could face and whether the community at large will bear the brunt of so many unpaid bills.
Vendors still are owed $800,000 and apparently won’t be paid. Roughly half are local and half regional or national.
City spokeswoman Maria Johnson said the two entities are separate so “the city is not able to comment about GO Cedar Rapids’ debt.”
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Last Friday, city Finance Director Casey Drew said that “we feel bad for those vendors that weren’t paid, but at the same time it wasn’t the city that ran the event. It wasn’t us that put it on.”
Days after the festival, which also featured musical acts Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson, fashion designer Carson Kressley and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, the GO Cedar Rapids organization canceled $300,000 in checks to vendors to avoid them bouncing.
After running out of money, GO Cedar Rapids announced Friday it would cease to exist. With no assets, it did not go to bankruptcy court.
The Cedar Rapids City Council, which historically has awarded the organization $1 million annually in public hotel-motel tax money, declined to use taxpayer money for a bailout.
Told that GO Cedar Rapids and the city are separate organizations, Waters remained critical of the city’s role, saying that not paying vendors puts a “black eye on the city.”
“It was badly managed and it was the city’s fault for not keeping an eye on it,” he said. “Someone should have been watching. I just wonder how it got that far along, how it went along that far off track and no one noticed.”
Board members, which have included city officials, have said they were misled by former chief executive Aaron McCreight, who was fired.
Waters said the episode leaves a sour taste because he was promised multiple times he would get paid, including within the past couple of weeks by former GO Cedar Rapids interim President Jim Haddad, who said they were developing a plan to pay everyone. Board chairman John Myers made several public statements to the same effect.
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“It pisses me off,” Waters said. “They lied to me over and over and over, and I did every possible thing they asked me to do.”
Haddad, who was in his role for about six weeks after the former president was fired, said he no longer is authorized to comment for GO Cedar Rapids and referred questions to Myers, who has not returned multiple messages this week.
Council member Scott Olson said while newbo evolve failed, he does not believe it will carry over more broadly to local tourism, noting other events put on by the group were successful.
Waters said he created new material, attended other sessions at the event and participated in interviews — adding he had a good time when he was in town. But he said he did not anticipate riffing on the incident in his future shows saying, “It’s not funny.”
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