Attempting to create opportunities

Shortage of facilities impacting local athletics, community

News File Photo The gymnastics room has been a popular addition to the APlex of Alpena. Once upon a time, the gym inside the APlex could be rented out for different leagues and activities, but the facility has since transition to strictly a gymnastics room.

ALPENA — Over the years, cities such as Traverse City, Petoskey and Gaylord have grown, and with that growth has come more possibilities for athletes.

Alpena has plenty to offer the local community and its athletes, but, over time, the town has lost just as much — if not more — than it has gained over the past decade.

Alpena certainly has athletic facilities for sports and personal training, including The Bay Athletic Club, Northern Lights Arena, The APlex, The Huron Shores Complex and school facilities at Alpena High School and Alpena Community College.

But, while other northern Michigan cities have experienced an increase of open doors, Alpena has been at a slight standstill, and several businesses offering athletic opportunities have closed in recent years.

The Alpena Health and Racquet Club has been closed for nearly six years, the old ACC gym at East Campus is no longer used, and some of the opportunities athletes once had are no longer available or are more difficult to access.

Courtesy Photo The Alpena High School weight room is located beneath the gymnasium. This recent photo shows improvements made to the aging facility as head football coach Aaron Sims has made it his mission to create a better place for Alpena High athletes to train.

It is important for the community to keep growing and expanding in order to keep our athletes around and maintain a competitive culture, area sports leaders said.

If an athlete in Alpena has any aspirations of pursuing a sport, whether at the high school or collegiate levels, Alpena must continue to grow and create opportunities for athletes to further future athletic success.

“When I first got into the high school there wasn’t much equipment and the equipment we did have was real old and super rusty. Coach Sims made changes and upgraded the weight room and it has really helped build a more motivated atmosphere because having the new equipment makes you want to use it instead of having damaged, rusty equipment and it’s a more welcoming place than it was before,” Alpena High School athlete Sam Romero said. “It’s really important to have facilities as an athlete because sometimes the weight room at the high school isn’t open and the high school in general is closed for different reasons, so for athletes who want to put in the work, it’s important to have facilities to train in.”

With some of the facilities in Alpena, athletes wanting to train have to take the good with the bad.

The APlex has been renovated over time, but is used mainly for tennis and gymnastics, while hosting banquets, weddings and other formal events. The APlex also has a weight room, where community members can purchase a membership to use the newly renovated facility.

Courtesy Photo Pictured is the Traverse City Central High School weight room. The spacious facility is located in the school and filled with equipment that provides athletes a safe and healthy place to train.

The APlex has always been a jewel for local tennis players, as there are four regulation-sized tennis courts available indoors that can be used year round.

The APlex also has a gym, but what once used to house open basketball time and basketball leagues, batting cages, and a chance to rent out space for different athletic activities, is now home to the Alpena Gymnastics program.

Those changes have helped the APlex financially, but have also limited opportunities for those interested in other sports. That may change in the future, however, as there are ongoing discussions to improve and open up more possibilities for athletes and the community.

“I think Jim Park and the Park Family Foundation has been very generous of keeping prices here at the APlex affordable so more people can come here that may not have the money, and, to me, it has kept some sports alive,” said Norm Sommerfeld, APlex manager. “We continue to work on projects to better our facility and hope to have even more to offer in the coming year. We just need to find areas that aren’t being used as much as they should be and change them a little bit so we can take care of other groups. For us, turning our gym into strictly a gymnastics room was more of a financial thing. We have been able to benefit from the change, and it is hard to get into a school gym, but our goal is to continue doing what’s best financially so we can continue to open up more avenues for athletes for the community right here in our facility.”

Alpena has plenty to offer when it comes to exercising and allowing athletes to stay active with facilities scattered throughout town. From The Bay Athletic Club, APlex, The Performance Locker and Zen 24 Hour Fitness Center, which is relatively new to the area, Alpena offers plenty of facilities allowing athletes and community members a chance to live a healthy lifestyle.

Along with two sheets of ice, at least one of which is available year-round, Northern Lights Arena also offers an indoor track and, throughout the year, has many community members walking and running the track on a daily basis.

Alpena High School has also made strides in improving its weight room for athletes, thanks to head football coach Aaron Sims.

The AHS weight room rests beneath the gymnasium and Sims has done fundraising to get new equipment and create a more spacious workout environment. Sims is open to helping any and all athletes within the school and his availability has been important for young athletes.

“When I first got to Alpena and was shown the weight room at the high school, I was expecting way more from a Class A school,” Sims said. “When I came downstairs to the weight room, I knew there was some serious work that needed to be done. With the numbers that we have, it was necessary to upgrade our weight room and get rid of a lot of the old equipment we had and replace it with new equipment like squat racks and plates, just to name a few. When you’re talking about high school athletics or athletics in general, you have to build your kids and invest in your kids. The equipment we had was not very safe for our athletes and changes and improvements needed to be made and they need to continue being made. I’ve made a big push to continue making upgrades to our weight room and it’s necessary that we continue with these upgrades because what we have right now is not up to the standards we need for our athletes. I’m hoping, eventually, we get a bigger room in a different location and I’ll continue to do everything I can to make that happen. The better the facility, the more likely you’ll have kids come in and participate.”

However, many Alpena High athletes who spend their free time practicing a certain sport are sometimes limited to where they can practice. There are plenty of gyms around town, but accessing those gyms can be like pulling teeth.

The high school is not always available and a faculty member must be on-hand while an athlete practices during free time. After hours, the high school is typically locked up. The same goes for all of the other gyms around town.

Since AHS Athletic Director Tim Storch took over five years ago, the high school has seen major upgrades, including a brand-new video scoreboard, a new sound system, and new lights for the football stadium. Storch still has plans of upgrading the high school, including having the gymnasium floor redone to feature a separate basketball court and volleyball court, along with having the gym floor repainted and redoing the banners and record boards inside the gym.

“We have some top-notch facilities here in Alpena, including NLA in particular,” Storch said. “We take a backseat to no one in terms of our hockey arena, and we should be very proud to have that kind of establishment available to our high school and youth hockey program. We do have a ways to go in terms of making the rest of our facilities in town — and including the high school — something that our community can be proud of and be as nice as some of the facilities in the surrounding areas. Along with the upgrades we have already made, we have more visions and are confident that we can accomplish our goals because we have received tremendous support from the community and none of our upgrades at the high school have been district-funded, it has all been funded by our community.”

During times of the year when the weather is nice, there are plenty of facilities around town such as the Huron Shores Complex, McRae Park, and Bay View Park that offer athletes an opportunity to work on their game.

But during the winter months, those athletes trying to prep for spring sports continually face obstacles. For baseball and softball, which most schools around the area carry, getting gym time can be challenging, and there is only so much practicing and drills that can be done inside of a gym.

That’s not so in other northern Michigan communities.

Traverse City, for example, recently opened up The Grit Shop, an indoor baseball and softball training facility featuring four batting/pitching cages and a regulation-sized infield. That allows players to practice at any time throughout the year and is beneficial during the harsh winter months in Michigan, not to mention Traverse City Central High School has a weight room that can compete with a handful of small colleges around the state.

The Grit Shop has a simple pole barn structure with turf inside.

Facilities featured in Traverse City cost money, but the unique facilities are something that is very beneficial to the community and allows more opportunity for athletes.

“It is too hard from a competitive standpoint. During our spring sports season, we are usually behind because of the weather here and not having the types of facilities that schools in the southern part of the state have,” Storch said. “It’s difficult in a gym and you have track athletes running in the hallways. Baseball, softball and soccer, there is only so much you can do practicing in a gym. We are blessed to have robotics, but now this is taking some gym time away from our sports teams, so it’s definitely challenging. The lack of facilities right now hurts athletics because we are forced to find other venues and it presents serious challenges.”