City Parks and Recreation officials are hoping to offset the waves of inflation caused by the pandemic by introducing a new admission structure at the Pawnee Plunge this summer.
“Unfortunately, since the pandemic, we’ve had a significant increase in our chemical and other costs to run our facilities, and that includes the Aquatic Center and Pawnee Plunge,” Parks and Recreation Manager Betsy Eckhardt said. “All the costs to run our facilities have increased.”
Considered one of the biggest water parks in Nebraska, the Pawnee Plunge boasts an outdoor swimming pool, a 3-meter platform dive, a lazy river, numerous slides, a spray park area, a climbing wall and the addition of a family slide, among other things. There’s also the popular FlowRider attraction, a surface that creates artificial waves for those looking to test their skills on a boogie board.
Arguably the most noticeable pricing adjustment came to the group pass for the entire summer. The Parks and Recreation team has created the “Household/Family option,” which runs $400 and can enable up to six people who live at the same address and can include a caregiver to gain entry. Households with more than six individuals can be added for $60 per person.
The known “Group of Six” rate has increased to $600 total for summer, giving a group of people from any address access to the park.
“It was so inexpensive before, we weren’t covering our cost,” Parks & Recreation Aquatics Coordinator Joe Krepel said of the $300 price increase. “We were losing money on the group membership, so it wasn’t financially feasible for us. At the same time, we recognized that could negatively affect households. That’s why we created a household membership rate.”
An individual can also buy a season pass for $125.
But those who want to frequent the pool with their friends or a group of people they don’t live with throughout the summer aren’t limited to just the group rate or individual pass. This summer will mark the debut of the Plunge’s “Punch Card System,” enabling individuals to purchase 25 punches/entries for $125 or 50 for $200 throughout the season.
“Some people come on a regular basis, but not enough for a membership,” Krepel said, adding that he thinks it’s a great alternative to people who don’t live in the same household and want to frequent the Plunge but may not want to purchase the “Group of Six” pass.
Eckhardt echoed that sentiment, noting punch cards could be a big help to grandparents or people with frequent guests.
“In a community where family is important to everybody and we have lots of grandparents who live here and bring their grandkids to the Plunge, this is great,” she said. “A punch card option is much more feasible for them.”
Then there are options for daily passes. Those up to age 3 are free, while kids 4 and up are $10. A five-person group runs $40 per day, while a 10-person collective runs $70 per day. A daily bracelet for the FlowRider is $3, and those wanting to cool down during the park’s evening hours (6:30 p.m-8:30 p.m.) can do so for just $4
The Pawnee Plunge, 560 33rd Ave. in Columbus, has open swim from noon to 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, leaving 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m. for fitness programs and swimming lessons (those who utilize punch cards at the Plunge during the day will not be required to give up another punch to regain entry for evening hours).
The Plunge is open from noon-7 p.m. Friday-Sunday, as well as on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
The rise in the cost of chemicals is hardly the only reason for the new rates. The Parks & Recreation Department made the adjustments to also cover the cost of hiring staff, such as dozens of lifeguards, the cost of training and getting them certified, as well as to ensure it could offer competitive wages.
Lifeguards are now making $14, which is a $3 increase the department had initiated in the 2022 season. The current minimum wage in Nebraska is $10.50 per hour, but it’s expected to rise to $15 per hour by 2026 after Nebraska Initiative 433 was approved by voters in November 2022.
“There’s a serious responsibility that comes with lifeguards that warrant offering higher pay and the price increase. We wanted to stay ahead of the minimum wage increase that is coming,” Krepel said.
More than 70 lifeguards have been hired for the summer so far, with Krepel noting having dozens is so that everyone gets time for rest and can be sharp when on duty. Others have been hired for positions such as overseeing slides and concessions.
“I think ultimately we have an opportunity to bring some excitement …our staff is phenomenal. I think they’re very excited,” Krepel said.
Parks and Recreation staff members have heard concern from some residents about the park’s new rates, but they stress the overdue adjustments are about ensuring the Pawnee Plunge is a fun and safe environment for everyone in the years to come.
“Our motto at the Plunge is, ‘Safety, Customer Service and Teamwork,’” Krepel said. “We want to continue to provide the community around Columbus a great place to swim, but also a great job opportunity for our youth.”
The Plunge will open for the summer on Saturday, May 27th.