Waterfront: how they became a community club

A boxing coach leads a class for young people

Waterfront started as six friends meeting up in the back of a haulage company to train in boxing and martial arts. It’s unrecognisable now, turning into a place where hundreds of people from across the community take part in classes ranging from IT and mechanics to healthy eating – a place where young people are given a second chance. All of this because the community needed it and Waterfront listened.   

What follows is a summary of Waterfront's journey. For full detail, please view this PDF version.

Facts and figures  

Type: Re-roofing and then a rebuild of boxing club following a fire  

Type of organisation behind the project: Charity (Waterfront Sports and Education Academy)   

Sports use of facilities: Boxing; Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; Box Fit; Cardio Box, fitness training, personal training, Zumba, Pilates, wrestling  

Location: Unit 15, Lister Building, Marjorie Street, Leicester, LE4 5GY  

Funding: Overall cost: £290,000. Sport England contribution: £81,862. Other significant funding: £200,000 insurance payment (via landlord) following a fire, Norman Gill Charity £80,000, Samworth Brothers Sports Opportunity Fund £20,000 (plus sponsorship of staff posts).  

Key events and milestones  

Date Event
1999 Six friends meet for boxing, martial arts and fitness training in the back room of a haulage company
2001 Leicester Nirvana club established, with over 300 members
2010 Name changed to Waterfront Boxing
March 2012 Becomes Waterfront Boxing Active Centre Community Interest Company
June 2012 Sport England grant awarded
July 2012 Building work commences on replacing leaking roof
September 2014 Converted to a charity ‘Waterfront Sports and Education Academy’
December 2015 Fire, building closes
January 2016 Fire clean-up and rebuild begins
February 2016 Club reopens
June 2017 Final stages of rebuild, installation of heating as final stage


The first steps towards becoming a community club were taken when local youngsters noticed and asked after the people coming and going from the building carrying gym kit and boxing gloves. The six friends started to teach classes, and after just two years, a club with more than 300 members had been formed. 

Community, survival   

The three people behind the development of Waterfront were Michael Lewis (then chair), Michael Burgess (then centre manager) and Mahesh Patel (treasurer). In 2003 they formed their first five-year plan, all were in agreement that close ties with the local community would be key to the club’s survival:  

We knew that if it was just a gym then it would likely fail. That it would have a much better chance if it was linked to the community

Michael Burgess, chief executive

Between them, the trio knew that they had a good enough skill-set to develop a strong programme of activities. They all had experience in youth work and boxing coaching. They were also confident that they could recruit other people from the local community who could teach or coach other activities that would be of interest to local people. 

Knowing their audience  

The club talked to people in the community and started to plan how they saw the club developing; “We did a ‘mind-map’ in 2003 of what was needed. Everything on that map we are now doing,” says chief executive Michael Burgess. “The young people are our driver; they started the youth club sessions. At every step it’s us asking them what they want.”

Activities now on offer include: community outreach, youth clubs, Connexions advice services, engaging with excluded pupils, non-contact boxing, training in schools/colleges alongside healthy eating, IT and literacy/numeracy education. 

The mind-map drawn up by Waterfront

The Olympic effect  

Waterfront’s Inspired Facilities grant from us was to make repairs and improvements to a building which they felt would, in the state it was then in, put off new audiences they were hoping to attract to the club. The critical moment for them was the 2012 Olympics; they saw a surge in interest and enthusiasm from local girls and young women who had been inspired by women’s performances at the games:  

“The Olympics was huge, absolutely massive. Until that point it was difficult getting girls in to the centre. It was the boxing and the Taekwondo particularly that meant we had up to 50 girls and young women wanting to attend sessions. We needed to start changing the facility, better showers, better toilets,” – Michael Lewis, chair 

It was at this time that women from the local Muslim community also started to attend Waterfront. One woman told them that they wanted something to do on their own doorstep, without having to travel into Leicester’s city centre.    

The Olympics was huge, absolutely massive. Until that point it was difficult getting girls in to the centre.

Michael Lewis, chair

Initially, Waterfront members mediated with the women’s husbands to arrange attendance at the club, but it was when they formed a partnership with the Muslim group ‘ZFit’ that attendance really took off. 

ZFit now use the club as a base, offering women a safe space in which to exercise, but also helping to bring in people from a wider section of the community around Waterfront, and widening the club’s activities:    

“It’s an evolving partnership. We work together and have that mentality and work together in partnership. Waterfront’s work was boxing and kids, and ours was women, which was missing so it’s introduces that and so much scope for growth. There are seminars for healthy eating and community sport for obesity. We have a kitchen up here, so are teaching healthier cooking at home,” – ZFit coach 

Women at an all-women boxing class

ZFit

Waterfront brings together people of various age groups, ethnic groups and circumstances. A partnership with ZFit has been key to encouraging local women to attend the club.

Young men learn mechanics skills

Alternative education

Increasing numbers of young people are attending the alternative education classes at the club, and a number of them are achieving National Open College Network qualifications. Martin, head of education at Waterfront, feels that boxing plays an important part in the success of these classes.

He says: “Boxing breaks down any barriers they have, gets rid of a lot of negative energy and tension and gives them confidence and self-esteem."

Young people train in boxing

From six to 600

Having started as six friends meeting in the back of a haulage company, Waterfront now sees up to 600 visitors come through its doors each week. By increasing their education classes, they hope to raise more income and eventually be able to buy their premises.

The future  

Following a fire and temporary closure in 2015/16 Waterfront is back up and running.   

Since their mind-mapping and community consultation in 2003, the club has thoroughly grown and diversified their classes and activities.

Two grants from the local authority kick-started a summer play scheme which brought in small amounts of income. Waterfront intend to expand this school provision to bring in more money, save for a deposit and eventually buy their building.     

These summer play schemes have brought a wave of new young volunteers to the club. Waterfront’s trustees now intend to take more of a backseat, aiming to handover the running of the club to these younger volunteers within three to four years: 

“We do free summer schemes, so they come early ages. They get a bonding with us. If they come back in and do voluntary work with a passion, then our job’s done. My time is up... the young ones have speed and efficiency and it is time to let the new blood come through and let go. We are working with four young people who are around 20 years old and have grown with us for the last ten years. We take them to meetings so they understand the organisation,” – Michael Burgess, chief executive.  

Waterfront's three take-home tips   

  • Take your time and believe in yourself
  • Invest in the right staff
  • Don’t chase funds for the sake of it.   

Our take on the project  

Through our funding, we aim to nurture projects which address the five health, social and economic outcomes set out in the Government’s Sporting Future strategy. We feel that Waterfront strongly supports two of these outcomes in particular: individual development and social and community development.   

There is a real community feel to the place, which is very locally rooted – it’s not a facility that people travel a long way to use. Mick Murphy (Leicester Partnership Schools) refers young people who are excluded or about to be excluded to two alternative classes (boxing and car mechanics) that Waterfront offer. He says that when these young people have finished their courses at the end of Year 11, they often come back to train or volunteer, but only if they are local.   

Mick was also a boxer himself and says “the centre has a good reputation” and that “the staff are not seen as teachers, and the young people can relate to them. They’re friendly and approachable but can also get the message across”.

He described the changes in one young person as being a being “a huge difference. At the start he wouldn’t talk to anybody but quickly he was smiling, happy, having conversations and good social interaction with other young people”. 

A Longer read

To learn about the journey that Waterfront took in greater detail, download the PDF below: