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Ridge Waters season II

Attendance and revenue at Butte's new water park, pictured here last June, far exceeded expectations. Opening date for season two is tentatively set for Memorial Day weekend.

Butte’s wildly popular Ridge Waters water park has a definitive target date for opening its second season this year and, by public demand, will stay open a half hour later each day this summer.

And among other changes this time around, Butte-Silver Bow is hiring and managing all lifeguards instead of the Butte Family YMCA.

Because of Butte’s typical lingering winter weather and construction setbacks, the $8.7 million water park didn’t open at Stodden Park last year until June 27. That nixed an entire month of what should be 100-day seasons from here on out.

But when it did open, people came. In droves. And scores of them were from out of town.

Attendance topped 37,000 and admissions brought in $158,851 in revenue. The park also sold more than $87,000 in food, snacks and sodas. Pretzels with cheese were the biggest hit, with 5,361 sold for a combined cost that topped $18,000.

Cabana rentals took off, too, with most of them reserved by folks from outside of Butte-Silver Bow County, including many from the city that many in Butte love to hate — Bozeman.

Simply put, the pool and lazy river complex was a big, big hit.

“It was way better than what we ever anticipated,” said Parks Director J.P. Gallagher. “It exceeded any expectations as far as attendance and what we sold at the concession stand. It was a good problem to have. It wasn’t anything we couldn’t accommodate.”

Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive, expects this coming second season to be a hit, too.

“I used to drive down there on my lunch hour just to see how things were going and there were cars with out-of-town license plates every day and that is a good sign,” Palmer said. “They are coming here. It’s just a fantastic water park.”

Barring some kind of crazy weather or big mechanical issues, plans are for Ridge Waters to open this year on Sunday, May 26, the day before Memorial Day. It should be open seven days a week through Labor Day on Sept. 2.

New hours, later days

The hours will be slightly different this season, including an extra half hour tacked onto each day. By popular demand, closing time will be 7 p.m. instead of 6:30 p.m.

“They liked it so much, they wanted to stay longer,” Gallagher said.

Prior to school being out, the park will be open on weekdays from 3:30 to 7 p.m. through June 7. Normal hours kick in on June 8, when everyone can come to swim and play from noon to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Those same hours will apply for the first few weekends before school is out.

The hours for lap swimming, exercising in the lazy river and any lessons this year will be from 9 to 11:30 a.m. each day, but that doesn’t begin until June 10.

There is still plenty of sunlight at 7 p.m. and even later in the summer, but Gallagher said hours later than that pose problems.

“One of the issues you have with extended hours is having enough lifeguards and personnel there,” he said. “You add costs. You have to have 10 lifeguards on duty at all times. All that has to be taken into consideration, and you have to get the facility cleaned and ready for the next day.”

Changing of the guards

The Butte YMCA hired and managed all the lifeguards last year, but by mutual agreement, Butte-Silver Bow is taking that on this year.

The county paid the YMCA nearly $118,000 for the services last year, but because of the shortened season, much of it was refunded. The final tab was just over $65,000 and Gallagher said county officials were pleased with the work the YMCA did.

But Phillip Borup, executive director of the Butte YMCA, said it needed more money than the contract provided and the county probably had more resources to do the actual hiring. So this year, the county will hire and manage 20-plus lifeguards.

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The YMCA gave the county a contact list for last year’s lifeguards and has agreed to certify others for work at Ridge Waters. The county has hired Lynn Shrader, swim coach at Butte High School, to manage the lifeguards this summer and she also can certify them.

The YMCA has supported the water park and still does, but it did bite into the Y’s revenues last year.

“The morning time was just as busy when we have our laps and swimming lessons and the evenings were OK,” Borup said. “Where we noticed a really big difference was in the middle of the day. Instead of coming here, they were going there. From a fee perspective, it was down 25 to 30 percent in that time frame.”

But, he said, “We were able to absorb it and our membership stayed the same.”

Gallagher said starting lifeguards will be paid $10 an hour like last year and returning ones will make $10.50 an hour. That’s more than some summer help makes, he said, but the job does come with “life-saving responsibilities.”

Last year’s hits

Of 37,157 admissions last year, 18,002 were youngsters who paid $4 to get in. Just over 2,000 people — primarily parents and grandparents — paid $2 for deck admission so they could watch over their kids or grandkids but not get in the water.

The pool was not only a hit with Butte residents, it drew people from all over the region. And a majority of those who rented one of five cabanas at the water park for three hours or a full day were from out of town.

“We knew we would attract people from right around this area, but we were also attracting people from farther away than we thought,” Gallagher said. “Bozeman came over a lot and a lot of people came down from Helena, which has its own water park.”

There were 272 cabana rentals bringing in $8,400 in revenue, according to figures from Mark Fisher, the water park’s general manager.

At the concession stand, pretzels with cheese were the single biggest hit with more than 5,300 sold. There were 3,234 bottles of 20-ounce water sold at a buck a piece. The water added up was 505 gallons.

Nachos were popular, with 3,030 orders sold at a cost of $10,605. Snow cones and slushies were hits, too, as were 12-inch pizzas.

More than 400 kids from low-income families got “scholarships” so they could get in free. Businesses in the Butte area donated more than $8,000 for the admissions — a tab so generous that some money has been carried over for this year.

When county officials and a citizen group called Friends of Stodden Park were trying to drum up support for the water park and a $7.2 million bond that paid for most of it, they promised to leave no kids on the outside because they couldn’t afford to get in.

"Butte came out in such support for the low-income kids," Gallagher said. "We didn't really advertise for people to contribute. It was just kind of word-of-mouth and Facebook and it just snowballed."

New additions

There will be an add-on this year — a garage 24 feet by 24 feet that will be used to store lawn mowers, an ATV utility cart and other supplies. Last year, the mowers were wheeled over to the golf course for storage and the ATV sat on the pool deck, Gallagher said.

The garage won’t be fancy — just a large space with electricity — but it will free up space in the main building that lifeguards used to share with supplies. It got crowded fast, but now that room can be primarily for lifeguards.

The garage will cost about $50,000 to build but there is money left over from the initial pot of $8.7 million for the water park, so it won’t cost taxpayers anything extra.

It will be just to the east of the main building and set back next to a utility road so it doesn’t detract from the rest of the park. Its design will replicate that of the main building with roof lines, siding and colors.

Numerous other improvements have been made to Stodden Park, including a $1 million “destination playground” that is drawing big crowds already.

“With all the other improvements at Stodden, people will be able to spend the whole day there, whether they are swimming or golfing or playing softball or using the playground that is there,” Palmer said. “It’s just fantastic.”

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Government and politics reporter

Mike Smith is a reporter at the Montana Standard with an emphasis on government and politics.

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