Staff Columnist

Cooking up a newbo evolve mess

The Newbo Evolve Garden features information about natural pollinators, accessible to three day pass holders, during the final day of the Newbo Evolve festival in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
The Newbo Evolve Garden features information about natural pollinators, accessible to three day pass holders, during the final day of the Newbo Evolve festival in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)

So I was sitting on a terrace overlooking downtown Austin, Tex., last week when word came that newbo evolve had become newbo implode.

Turns out the three-day August festival in Cedar Rapids featuring big name concerts and speakers lost a whopping $2.3 million.

A debacle, to put it mildly. Heads rolled. Checks bounced. With each new headline, fresh fodder for community cringing. GO Cedar Rapids, the local tourism agency that was the event’s driving force, has stopped, and may in fact go.

I mention my location because Austin is home to South by Southwest, one of the iconic national festivals newbo evolve’s brain trust aspired to emulate in Cedar Rapids.

Lots of cities claim to be “vibrant.” Then you land in Austin, a city that needs to make no such claim. It’s as obvious as the 100-degree-plus heat, which doesn’t seem to bother folks jamming trails, outdoor restaurants and Lady Bird Lake.

South by Southwest started as a music festival, tapping into the city’s renowned and eclectic local music scene. But as the state capital, home to the University of Texas and a growing technology hub, ample local ingredients were readily available for South by Southwest’s growth into a much bigger deal.

And I bring this up not to contend Austin is cool and Cedar Rapids is lame. Instead, I’d argue one big reason newbo evolve became a financial train wreck in a nitroglycerin factory is because its chefs shunned the virtues of our available local ingredients. Instead, they ordered up a very pricey 12-course meal cooked up mostly by folks from someplace else.

In the middle was a giant cake, with “We’re Big Time!” slathered in thick frosting. It could all be yours, for just $400 per three-day pass. What could go wrong?

Delicious, for those who dug in, especially if they scored complimentary tickets. But, oh, the heartburn to come.

As any baker will tell you, frosting can cover up a multitude of sins. But eventually, all will be revealed. The bills came due. And it was a recipe for disaster.

Or maybe newbo evolve finally found its outside-the-mainstream bohemian identity by ditching the stuffy conventions of fiscal prudence. Sorry, trying to stay positive.

The passes were obviously, ridiculously expensive, and the decision to stubbornly resist offering cheaper a la carte options was a huge error. When sales of those passes faltered early on, why didn’t GO leaders sound the alarm and change course? The notion none of our friends in high places saw these clouds gathering is astounding.

If GO Cedar Rapids is to survive, it needs a fresh start. New leadership, a new governing board, the works. Paying its debts will be priority one.

But don’t let this mess vaporize the idea Cedar Rapids can do impressive things. The community simply needs to first tap into those local ingredients as it conjures them up. Which attributes, assets and strengths could shape a different sort of festival or some other “signature” event? Growing something can be bold, too. Just ask Austin.

The recipe for a success is all around us. Just add imagination, creativity and a vision. Skip the frosting.

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

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