Staff Columnist

Newbo festival fallout stings C.R., but will it evolve?

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)

Thanks to newbo evolve, GO has stopped. Here’s what we know.

Well, we know GO Cedar Rapids’ 18-member board of directors insists it didn’t know its ambitious August festival was careening toward a barrel ride over boondoggle falls, to the tune of a $2.3 million loss. Fired CEO Aaron McCreight, spun rosy fables about great ticket sales, according to board meeting minutes, which the board apparently believed. Ticket sales, especially $400 three-day pass sales, were paltry. Who knew?

We also know the city wants you to know, very badly, GO Cedar Rapids is an independent tourism promotion agency not at all affiliated with the city. It received $1 million in hotel/motel taxes annually from the city, and a $500,000 advance to help pay for newbo evolve, but the festival was not a city production. The city will not be covering its debts. Also, city officials didn’t know this decidedly non-city festival was headed for disaster.

I didn’t attend any of the educational breakout sessions at newbo evolve, but the symposium on plausible deniability must have been packed to the rafters.

We know who’s been left holding the bag, a list of vendors owed $800,000 with little or no prospects for ever getting paid. A festival that was supposed to generate positive pop culture buzz for Cedar Rapids and fill social media with love for our bohemian-ness has, instead, spawned a legion of unpaid bad-will ambassadors who got stiffed.

Maybe they’ll form a group called STOP Cedar Rapids.

“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,” film director John Waters told The Gazette’s B.A. Morelli this past week. Waters failed to receive full payment for lecturing at the festival.

“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,” Waters said.

Um, isn’t it who would have thought the totally non-city, independent tourism promotion entity would have ripped him off? I’m getting a strong sense the city’s effort to distance itself from this remake of “The Money Pit” may be a long-term project, like diffusing five smells and shaking Speeder Trapids.

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I can’t blame the city for not wanting to sink any more public funds into this debacle. But the punches and the civic black eyes over these unpaid debts are going to keep coming. The community’s image has been tarnished. Maybe not paying is the only thing to do, but it hardly seems like the right thing to do.

We need to see a full list of who didn’t get paid, so, at the very least, we might be able to throw some business to these vendors in the spirit of making amends. We rallied to help local joints after flooding, and in a way, this is a man-made disaster. Just a thought. Maybe others have ideas.

But the prevailing civic sentiment seems to be aimed at making this go away, fast.

GO Cedar Rapids, mired in debt and without assets, is going “dormant.” The city is forming its own tourism promotion entity. The show must go on, wth tourism dollars at stake.

What I’ll never fully understand is how, with red flags flying since the inception of this oversized, overpriced, lowercase festival, how the GO board failed to see this storm coming, or failed to demand the sort of solid, unfiltered numbers that would have allowed them to see. I’ve read the explanations and the minutes. McCreight fudged the numbers, misled and ignored advice. But I still don’t fully get this failure of oversight.

McCreight’s public reluctance through the spring and summer to say how many of the 4,000 three-day passes had been sold was a whopping warning sign of trouble ahead. In the end, just 602 passes were sold, denying the festival of critical revenue. Red ink filled the gap.

Skepticism of this event’s prospects for success was persistent and palpable around these parts for months, but so was a stubborn reluctance to openly criticize an ambitious local venture. The come-to-your-senses-and-change-course moment never came. We needed checks and balances. Instead there now are no checks and no balance. Fear of taking responsibility trumped fear of financial calamity.

Lessons must be learned. Oversight of public dollars handed out to non-city entities should be tightened. We need far greater transparency, with public numbers and answered questions. The success or failure of ambitious community initiatives is everybody’s business, because we now know the high cost of a big failure is will be paid far beyond the confines of one organization. Or not paid, in the case of vendors.

Nothing-to-see-here is so tempting. But it doesn’t prove the community has learned, or evolved.

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

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