The Fyre Fest of the Heartland

The story me and drunken friends yelled at a visitor one time

This weekend I had a housewarming party for my house. I was very worried no one would come. But I bought a dress off of Amazon that’s basically a nightgown, mixed up some boozy apple cider and chili and made my kids clean their rooms. I used to throw parties all the time. I love people. I love feeding them and shouting with them in my house. I love it when chicken wings get dipped in the chocolate fountain (RIP big dawg) and when I crawl under the table tipsy to whisper with my friends. My life hasn’t been like that in a while. But now in this house, in this place, I hope it will be.

One of the people who came to my housewarming party was ESTEEMED LA Times journalist, Matt Pearce. He was in town for some political event and it’s Iowa and we have one of those all the time. And he graciously stopped over for chili and to be shouted at by drunk strangers.

The story we told Matt that night was the best story Cedar Rapids has to offer, the story of the NewBo Evolve Festival aka the Fyre Festival of the Heartland. He tweeted about it the next day. Clearly impacted by the storytelling. But I thought I’d tell you the tale. But I want you to imagine me in what is probably a nightgown, eye makeup smeared, drinking a White Claw, and shouting THERE WUZ APPOSED TO BE A ZIP LINE at you while reclining on my green velvet couch, which I bought from WalMart DOT COM.

Let’s begin…

In 2018 marked 10 years since historic flooding devastated Cedar Rapids. The areas hit the hardest where downtown and two areas called NewBo, short for New Bohemia and Czech Village. The names are so derived because of a strong Czech heritage here in town. We have our Kolach festivals and everyone is very proud of Andy Warhol who came here one time. It’s very intense.

But 10 years after a flood and the NewBo area was roaring back to life. We had a market and shops, new restaurants, housing. It was fun. And it was time to celebrate and show what Cedar Rapids had to offer.

Enter GO Cedar Rapids GO. GO CR was basically a separate tourism entity designed to bring people to Cedar Rapids. They got grant money, sure, but they also got a lot of money from the city. GO CR came up with a bunch of fun things to do in town like a competition between local chefs. And, I’m told they got the state volleyball tournament here, which is big money. But that wasn’t enough and they decided to go big, be LEGENDS and get Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 to come to Cedar Rapids, for a festival that would be like SXSW, but really white, male, and expensive. $375 for festival tickets. Maybe $375 for tickets works in NEW YORK CITY, but here, shit. That’s a lot. Also, they were gonna block off access to the entire NewBo area without talking to residents or business owners. They wanted a zip line called the Cedar Screamer to run over the river. What could go wrong?

It’s important to note that this festival was also planned on the same weekend as two other large well established festivals in Iowa. Also, the population of our town is about 140,000. That’s it.

Everything went wrong. No one came.

I was contacted about a month before the festival to ask if I could get some more “diverse” writers to be part of the event. I said, only if you pay them Kelly Clarkson money and they didn’t respond. They wanted me to come, but I already had a vacation planned. And also, I was really concerned. I sent a letter to a couple city council people and some other people involved in planning asking about diversity, representation, how the festival would affect low income people in the area who couldn’t afford to go, but also were now trapped by the festivities.

“Don’t you want Cedar Rapids to succeed?” one woman asked me. “If you want it to succeed, help it, don’t criticize it.”

I left.

Here is what happened. Let me quote from an article by my colleague Brian Morelli, who is feared in this town as a journalist who actually does his job. He knows more about NewBo Evolve than anyone. Please contact him for all documentary needs. He should receive Kelly Clarkson money.

The Aug. 3-5 event received positive reviews, including from talent and city officials. But attendance was well below promises — 602 three-day passes sold out of 4,000 and 8,340 general admission concert tickets sold out of 22,000. Complimentary tickets amounted to 3,804.

The Zip line never was built.

Days after, the GO CR board of directors revealed the festival lost $2.3 million, organization President Aaron McCreight and community events director Scott Tallman had been fired, and the board had been misled about ticket sales, sponsorships and spending.

Numerous checks bounced, vendors were owed $800,000 and Bankers Trust was owed $1.5 million for a loan.

People are still owed money. Small businesses saw huge losses they will never recoup. The local theater lost tens of thousands of dollars. Everyone in town was hit. If Fyre Festival was notable for people defrauding rich people, well NewBo Evolve ripped off a town getting back on its feet and also John Waters who hates Cedar Rapids, more than any town in America.

Here is what John Waters had to say about his appearance at NewBo Evolve:

“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.”

Aaron McCreight, the director of the festival recently found a new job in Alabama, where his new bosses told Brian Morelli that McCreight was a scapegoat. McCreight has only ever said this in his defense:

“We took a calculated risk that didn’t work. At the end of the day it was up to me to answer for that and I did. It’s not the first time an event failed and it won’t be the last time.”

We might not even have shouted the story to Matt that Saturday night if it weren’t for the cups. Over a year after the festival failed, thousands and thousands of blue plastic cups labeled “NewBo Evolve” ended up in a thrift store. Like little blue toxic ghosts.

The cups were donated anonymously to the religiously affiliated store. The owner wouldn’t indicate who had sent them, but did tell me one city council member had been in to buy some. I bought 40 and gave a bunch to my new boss and my coworkers, all of whom covered the disaster. I also have a bunch in my new home and I brought them out at the party that night, so we could #NeverForget.


I’m still writing columns these days. You should read them.