The demise of GO Cedar Rapids might be a sign of challenging times ahead when it comes to attracting visitors to our community. There are steps local government and nonprofit leaders can take to minimize the harm and restore the public’s trust.
The independent tourism and convention bureau is ending operations after 36 years, officials announced last week, in the face of millions in debt related to the newbo evolve festival in August. GO Cedar Rapids has been supported by a generous cut — $1 million annually, authorized by the City Council — from the city’s hotel-motel tax revenue.
Organizers set impossibly lofty expectations for the newbo evolve festival, booking two famous music acts and several other national figures to deliver lectures. However, with festival passes priced at nearly $400 and limited opportunities for a la carte access, mass interest in the event never materialized. As the event drew near, it became clear the scope of the festival was not appropriate for this market.
In the aftermath of newbo evolve, we learned GO Cedar Rapids was on the hook for a $1.5 million bank loan and additional payments owed to vendors. Details of the $800,000 owed to vendors should be publicly disclosed. This is important in understanding the decision to let the organization go dormant and why other paths — including having local government fulfill the unpaid financial obligations — were nonstarters. While this might cause short-term challenges, it will help the next organization move forward.
Most important, the city must make an effort to ensure greater accountability among outside groups receiving government funds. Hotel-motel taxes might be paid mostly by visitors, but Cedar Rapids residents have a legitimate interest in how those funds are spent. The goal must be to avoid a repeat of newbo evolve, where public dollars were squandered after community input and buy-in apparently were disregarded.
GO Cedar Rapids leaders were entrusted with public money, and they broke our trust. Because state law prescribes few restrictions about spending hotel-motel taxes, Cedar Rapids must implement its own strong safeguards.
We don’t believe the city can or should be in the tourism business very long, but city leaders should lead the conversation on what a future tourism organization looks like.
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It might prove difficult for other event planners to draw in vendors and A-list entertainers in the future. Yet, if concrete steps are taken to promote transparency and accountability, Cedar Rapids can avoid being slapped with an unfair reputation as a deadbeat host. We’re confident stakeholders will work together to make that happen.
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