"It's been so gratifying for me to see us start to transform Siouxland athletics, which has been our goal from the beginning."
When Hobby Lobby moved from its Singing Hills storefront in 2018, many thought the building would remain empty, but then a group of local sports dads had an idea. In late 2019, The Arena Sports Academy officially opened.
Mike Hesse and Dustin Cooper had big plans for the new youth sports facility's first year.
"To say that the last year has been a challenge is the understatement of the year. We opened in December of 2019 and about 3 months later had to shut her down," Cooper recalled. "We got to open up and then we had to shut back down, and then we got to open up kind of."
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Siouxland area in March and most places, including The Arena, were closed. But during that time, Hesse and Cooper and the Arena team made plans, trying to find a way that would keep hundreds of athletes safe and healthy while still letting them practice, play, and hone in their skills.
"We figured out ways where we could get more kids in the building but still abide by all of the mandates put in by the governor. We were able to grow during that time which helped me grow my role as well in the building," James Maher said. He wears many hats at The Arena and helping young athletes on and off the court is one of them.
"There's more to sports than just winning and competing, he said, "and that is one thing that we like to see happen in this building."
"We want to be complementary and cohesive with what they are trying to do at their schools so that we can give the kids the best."
Brandon Snyder is a former Iowa Hawkeye football and West Lyon stand-out and he is bringing his experience to young athletes at The Arena.
"They have a much more accessible opportunity to attain high-level development," Snyder said. He is the Director of Performance and works directly with the athletes and their skills development.
"We want to be complementary and cohesive with what they are trying to do at their schools so that we can give the kids the best." And this isn't just for high school athletes, but younger kids as well. Snyder and the team work with athletes at all levels, developing skills they will need as they grow.
"If we can start that process in 5th or 6th grade they get a huge jump and that is what you are seeing in different communities in Omaha and Sioux Falls, where the basketball is really good and the athletes are really strong," Maher said. "It's all because of that expedited process of growing the body and growing your talent."
Cali Cooper is part of the Arena Dance Academy and has seen her skillset as a competitive dancer grow significantly since The Arena Dance Academy began.
I grew up in Arizona and there it is high level and crazy. And then moving back here it slowed and I didn't have it as much and I wasn't improving as much as I wanted to," the freshman dancer said. "I've felt like in just a year, I've gotten 10 times better than I was and usually that is not how it is."
The Dance Academy qualified for Nationals in 2020, but because of COVID-19, competing for the title wasn't possible. Now this year, that is the focus.
"That's our goal, to get there again and is what we are preparing for," Cali said. "We are practicing every day to get there and that is one of our big goals and my big goal is to do really well at Nationals."
Along with a Dance Academy, The Arena also offers, volleyball, basketball, wrestling and more. There is even a fitness program for adults, too. All of these programs, and the ones that will be announced soon, are geared toward all Siouxland athletes.
Hesse and Cooper each have kids that participate in Arena activities, and traveling to sports tournaments with their kids is how The Arena came to be.
"What can we do to allow Siouxland to catch back up with Omaha, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, the eastern half of the state?" Hesse said. He remembers taking notes of all of the sports facilities he visited before creating The Arena and using his favorite pieces of each to make this new Siouxland sports facility a reality.
"We are going to transform Siouxland sports. We are going to be able to compete at that next level," Hesse said. The investment is there to make sure that regardless of the business climate, we are here for the Siouxland area. We really try to emphasize two things," Cooper said of the academy. "One is affordable programming that does not sacrifice quality but also top-flight, not only instructors but human beings, and that is what we have done in our directors and staff."
"Kids can really start to find this as a home in Sioux City where they can come together and we can grow and form the future athletes and people of our community," Maher said.
The Arena Sports Academy is more than just a sports facility, they also work with their neighbors in the community to help other local businesses.
"We've really focused on two things. Number one, how can we be more efficient in what it is that we are doing," Cooper said. "Not only that, what new offerings can we bring? Not only by way of programming for individual kids, which is very important to us."
"But it's been our mission to our community. We want people pumping our gas, staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants. The Arena being able to play a little part in helping to grow our Siouxland community just means so much to me," Hesse said as the owner of The Arena, "and I know it means a lot to other local businesses in the area."
2020 was a difficult year for many, but the team behind The Arena says they are here to stay.
"A lot of questions that we have gotten over the course of the last 6 months is, are you guys going to be okay through the course of the pandemic and my answer is always the same," Cooper said.
"Yes, we are going to be okay. Yes, we are still here. Because of the individuals that we have, because of what we have The Arena will not fail. It won't be allowed to fail," Hesse echoed. "Even though the business climate wasn't great in 2020 to have a sporting facility, that doesn't matter. The Arena is here for the Siouxland community for the long haul."
"We really want people to be proud of us and we want to be the tip of the sword for the community when it comes to bringing sports events to our town," Cooper said.
For the players, parents, coaches and staff, The Arena has become a home with a dream to make a difference in Siouxland.
"It's all family here, from top to bottom, it's all family," said 8th-grade basketball player Caden Van Regenmorter" Here everybody helps each other out. The coaches on the bench help each other out. Other places you are by yourself. But here you are all family."
Hesse and Cooper are proud of the team they have assembled at The Arena, from directors to coaches and everyone in between.
"You have great people leading the charge and able to help the Siouxland youth," Hesse said, "I see nothing but great things for the future for all of our kids here in town and our businesses and hotels going forward."
Cooper couldn't agree more, "if we had to have the opportunity to prove ourselves that we are here and we are here to stay, I think making it to the end of a pandemic is probably a good example of that."
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