Staff Columnist

Avoiding the flames and blame of newbo evolve

"Evolve" painted into the hillside of Mount Trashmore for the Newbo Evolve festival photographed on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)

As we stand in the ashes of the newbo evolve festival, with its $2.4 million in debts and $800,000 in unpaid vendor tabs, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart wants you to know this fire “was not started by the city.”

A comfort, clearly, to those who got singed, and stiffed.

When leaders of GO Cedar Rapids, the now dormant tourism promotion bureau that ran the festival, recently approached the City Council with a bailout plan, there were no “secret meetings” to discuss it, Hart said. There were just meetings of small groups of council members that weren’t announced ahead of time and you couldn’t attend.

There were no quorums, you see. And because no council member supported a city-backed GO bailout, Hart said there was “no reason to put it on a council agenda.” Besides the whole notion of discussing important public policy decisions in public, I also can’t think of a reason.

It was all “perfectly legal,” the mayor said at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting. True enough.

“This is a horrible situation for all involved,” Hart said. Also true.

But a public discussion was unavoidable Tuesday as the council voted to hand local tourism promotion duties and hotel/motel tax dollars over to VenuWorks for the next year or more. The firm, which currently manages multiple city entertainment venues, will run the “Cedar Rapids Tourism Office.” No more GO!

City Finance Director Casey Drew explained that if the city used hotel/motel tax dollars to cover GO’s debts and pay its vendors, there would be no money for critical tourism promotion efforts. The result would be a costly “lull.”

Walking away, while shifting those functions elsewhere, avoids a lull. It also avoids responsibility for GO’s inferno.

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“If we pay one vendor, we have to pay them all,” Council member Scott Olson said. “It’s a no-win situation for the city.”

Council member Ashley Vanorny lamented how this ambitious “grand adventure” was mismanaged by a GO executive who operated like a “car salesman.” Council member Ann Poe said it was supposed to be a “beacon.”

“This just breaks my heart,” Poe said.

But, really, is the community’s only choice a pricey public bailout or nothing can be done? I’ve heard the “Creative Corridor” is dead, but didn’t anticipate the demise of creativity itself.

A community that recovered from a multibillion dollar natural disaster can’t clean up a smaller flash flood of red ink? Deal head on with floodwaters, but not John Waters?

I understand the threat of a lull. I get the trepidation over sinking more public bucks into this debacle. But there have to be options for mending broken promises made, if not by this community, in its name.

It’s tempting to walk away, but this isn’t going away. A lull is bad, but so are the dents in Cedar Rapids’ image.

There’s talk of more oversight in the future. Good idea. But it remains astounding the same leaders now deeply regretting this disaster didn’t perceive the enormous risks being taken when it mattered. If only we had financial HESCO barriers to deploy.

Instead, officials kept their distance, hoping they wouldn’t get burned.

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

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