This article comes straight from Issue 23 of FreestyleXtreme Magazine. You can get a printed copy of the magazine for free with any order placed in our online store (don't forget to request one at the checkout) or read the digital version below. Words by Simon Makker.
Photo: Campus Skateparks
The Campus Skateparks in Bristol are indoor complexes with a difference, and owners Andre Seidel and Tim Nokes have found a way to successfully rewrite the book on running a park while also leaving a positive impact on the community.
More often than not, you’ll find commercially-run, indoor skate parks are struggling to make ends meet. It doesn’t’ matter which corner of the planet you live on, running a park is a tough grind (pardon the pun) and is certainly more about the lifestyle and passion for the sport than it is about the size of the paycheck.
While this still rings true for Campus Skate Park owners Andre Seidel and Tim Nokes, the pair have discovered ways to not only make their enterprise viable, but also provide valuable input into the lives of young people throughout the city of Bristol, England.
We caught up with Andre to find out more about the unique Campus parks, what they’ve been able to achieve, and what the future might hold.
Thanks for the chat, Andre. What was it about skating that hooked you in the first place?
I’m originally from South Africa and it’s all about team sports there. Skating was one thing I could just go out and do by myself in my younger years. There’s something about the anti-establishment ethos of it all, it’s a bit rebellious and I quite like that. There’re a lot of rules in South Africa and this was something I came into contact with that I could tailor to my own style.
How did you and Tim meet?
I’ve been living in the UK for a while and decided to study youth work at Uni when I was 30. Tim and I met during my final year – I was writing my dictation on using skate park-based activities to engage young people, how it’s an engagement tool and how the councils in the UK are missing the mark. They build amazing facilities where thousands of young people come every month, but they don’t do anything once they’re there; there’s no follow-up work and no-one to encourage or support them on their journey.
At the time Tim was a youth worker running a weekly skate park project in an old youth centre with portable ramps every Saturday. I thought “this is amazing” and started volunteering for him, but my South Africanism took over and after three weeks I was like “man, we can do this way better, and really DO this”.
Ha ha, was he receptive to your ideas?
Yeah, I think he’d been waiting for someone with drive to support him. It all moved quite quickly when we decided we wanted the project to be for the betterment of young people and the community.
Is that when you decided to set yourselves up as a charitable organisation?
We toyed with the structure and thought of being a charity, but when we looked into it we discovered that if you’re a charity and you’re on the board of directors, you can’t work for that charity. We didn’t want to set something up and not be able to earn money from it, or have to hand-pick four or five people to essentially become our bosses. It was a conundrum, so we decided to set ourselves up as a social enterprise. That means we’re a company, but have a charitable objective. We’re still regulated by the Charities Commission but it fell in line with what we wanted to do.
What made you want to turn it from a pipe dream into a reality?
There was an election where the Tories were coming into power, and we realised we had to think more business-minded to grow and be sustainable as the Tories are more about privatisation.
At the same time, I was on my way home one Saturday and found an old college site that had been taken over by a charity and had an extremely flexible lease. I spoke to them and said we’d be keen to come in and build something, and the guy pointed us in the direction of an old brick-laying building that was big enough for a mini-ramp, a hip, bank and death wall. It had a roller-shutter door, asbestos roof and it was a bit of a shithole, really.
We negotiated a small fee, then met a ramp-hire guy who wanted to store his mini-ramp for winter and said “let’s set it up here, then you guys can use it”.
It was perfect, really. There are eight outdoor parks in Bristol but as soon as it rains there’s nowhere to go; this building gave us somewhere to skate during winter.
This isn’t one of the parks you have now though, is it?
No, we set it up in 2011 and had it for 18 months. By that stage we’d gained momentum and were able to work with local school kids who were at risk of exclusion or were not engaged; we had kids coming in almost every day during school time and were doing intensive work with them.
Even though we were doing a log of good work, the park was still quite raw and had more of a focus on fun times than it did on health and safety. We’d throw crazy parties with free booze, everyone was pissed up, skating, there were bands playing… it really was that backyard, punk rock underground skate park.
But our youth work, and the fact we were a social enterprise, meant the council looked quite favourably on us and helped find a space for us to move to when we were given a two-month notice to leave.
Was there any delay between closing that park down and establishing a new one?
It was actually a seamless transition. We saw a newspaper ad asking for expressions of interest for a used, empty swimming pool. Tim and I spent the next few weeks writing this massive document, and it worked perfectly that we had a year’s worth of accounts, had policies and procedures in place, everything we needed. We were the only organisation that ticked every box to take it on.
But the process took quite a while, and two months after we’d put the expression of interest in, an old youth centre came up in Winterbourne, on the other side of Bristol, with skate ramps already in there.
I called up about the wood and they said “we’ve had no interest for the building, so why don’t you take it on?” We threw an expression of interest on that building as well, and miraculously, we left the old college site on the Monday and on Tuesday we picked up the keys to the youth centre.
Wow crazy! So you went from having no home to suddenly having two venues?
Well, the consultation process and the logistics involved meant that it took three years to finally get the pool. In the meantime we had this youth centre in Winterbourne. We opened up a couple of rooms, put a mini-ramp in there, added a proper café and a shop, and had it all running while we were jumping through the hoops with the pool. Winterbourne wasn’t the ideal setting, as it’s a bit out of town, and it’s not very big. We always had our hearts set on the swimming pool.
It must’ve been a relief to finally get that signed off though.
It was, but there were a couple of hiccups along the way. When we first saw the pool it had only just been unoccupied, so it had all the electrics, all the plumbing, the windows were intact, it was a functioning building. But you can imagine what happens to an empty building over three years. When we took over in 2015 every single window was broken, every door broken, people had stolen lead off the roof, and all the wires were stripped. There was about $60 grand worth of damage, and getting it all back up to spec was a massive learning curve for us.
I bet. With the buildings being owned by the council, are you leasing them?
We have a 25-year lease on both properties, so we’re here for the next 23 years at least. And it’s highly unlikely the council will want these buildings back after that, so it wouldn’t be hard for us to negotiate a 99-year lease, which is crazy. That’s unheard of.
The youth centre is open every day for young people to access, and it’s a safe environment for them to ride their scooters, skateboards, BMXs, whatever. And the swimming pool is a community resource. The council doesn’t pay anything towards the maintenance of the buildings, but we don’t pay any rent, so that’s a big reason we’re still around. Our overheads are a lot lower, and a lot of parks are struggling because they pay rents, which always increase as landlords want more money.
Photo: Campus Skateparks
The whole ‘social enterprise’ thing is a pretty unique concept. Has it ever been done before?
Historically there’s no money in skate parks – they’re always struggling. A lot of organisations here realise parks are a great tool, and being a charity means you can draw down funding for activities for kids and keeping them healthy. But I think we’re the only social enterprise park at the moment.
Other organisations across the country have called us to find out how we’ve done it. I think we always thought we had the model right, but finally we really know what the right model is to become a sustainable skatepark, and I think that is a model that can be franchised in any city, really.
The more socially-minded skate parks there are in the country, the better it is for skateboarding and for young people. We want that to happen.
Just not in Bristol.
So, take us through each park. Let’s start with Winterbourne.
Okay, as you come in you’ve got a coffee shop mixed with the skate shop, with boards on walls. Every single wall in the park has graffiti on it and every year we get a different artist to come and just go crazy. The park is all wooden and more transition based, so it’s essentially a giant mini ramp with extensions and driveways in the middle like a traditional skate park. There’s a four-foot mini-ramp, quarter-pipes at both ends and stuff in the middle.
And The Pool?
That’s certainly our flagship park. It’s twice the size and has a standalone coffee shop called The Daily Grind Coffee Shop - we do fresh salads, wraps, excellent coffee and it has its own entrance, but is integrated into the skate park with windows looking into the park.
The shop is standalone, with hardware, soft goods, and all sorts. The park itself is concrete and is purely skateboard focused. It’s plaza-esque but there’re some quarter-pipes and a bowl corner. We’ve tried to maintain as much of the swimming pool feel as we could, and there’s a lowered section in the middle with kickers, banks and ledges up onto what would’ve been the walkway.
Aesthetically, it’s a bit cleaner. There’s no graffiti and there’s white brick everywhere. It’s kinda like a park you’d expect someone like Nike would build.
Nice. Is youth work still the biggest focus for Campus?
Absolutely. Of course Tim and I take a salary, but it’s nothing flash. The reason we do this is mainly to provide something for young people and skaters in the area.
Do you have mentoring programmes or anything, or is it more informal?
It’s mostly informal. Kids come, they feel safe, and that’s essentially the heart of youth work: providing a space where people feel comfortable or relaxed and can get some sort of mentoring or guidance in life. All of our staff are trained in-house on how to communicate and work with young people. If something is highlighted to us, like a child protection issue or we become aware of a young person sleeping rough, we have procedures to support them.
Most importantly it’s about building relationships. Every kid who comes regularly knows Tim and I and they know they can talk and ask questions, and hopefully we can encourage positive behaviour through positive interactions.
Have you had any success stories from your parks?
There are kids who started coming to the park ages six or seven who are still here, and they know this is a safe place for them. We try and get some of them into our volunteering programme, so they give us their time and they can skate for free and get discounts in our shop.
We also run an apprenticeship in customer service or retail, and we’ve had seven young people come through and work for a year to learn the ins and outs of retail while working at a park. Of those seven, four have gone onto either full-time or part-time employment with us, and one of those has been working for us for three years.
We help them progress, then try and help them move onto bigger and better things. That’s hard as we build such strong relationships with them, but for their own personal progression they need to.
And you guys are member-based, yeah?
That’s right. Everyone has to become a member. Winterbourne has a database of about 9000 now and the pool has just over 4000 in two years, which is a great milestone for us.
Awesome. There’s also a bit of stigma that there’s often a religious connection with youth work. Do you guys have any religious affiliation?
Not at all. I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but every religious youth group has a certain feel to it. We certainly don’t give that message; neither Tim nor I are religious and we don’t want to be portrayed in that way.
There are a lot of youth clubs that are council-run in the UK, so more people assume that we’re council run and receive funding from them to provide this service.
Do you guys have any projects you are working on at the moment?
We’ve got some ideas for the pool. There’s a room on the side we call the Boiler Room, and bizarrely, it’s about 4ft in width shorter than our original skate park.
So you could almost replicate your original old park in there.
That’s kinda what we’re thinking. We’ve had volunteers clean it out and we’re at the point where we can paint and graffiti the internal walls, add a wooden mini-ramp, and try and mimic our original skate park in there. We’d like to add a pool table in there, some sofas, it’s quite exciting.
We’re also looking at transforming the boys’ changing rooms into a mixed-use hot-desking space for professionals in the skate industry. We’d handpick companies that would work well for us, and one of the clauses in our agreement will be to provide some in-kind work with the young people. It’d make the building busier and shorten the link between a young person desperate to be involved in the industry but doesn’t have a clue on how to do it. It’s about making skate industry careers attainable to kids.
That’s a great idea. Are you guys content with two parks? What’s the dream for you?
Personally, I don’t’ think we’ll ever be content. I’d love to put another Campus Skate Park somewhere else in the country where kids don’t have an indoor park and are struggling to find somewhere to skate when it’s raining. Honestly, I’d love nothing more than the coffee shop and online store to be so successful that people could just come and use the skate park for free and completely remove any barriers that might stop a struggling kid from coming here, skating, and feeling like this is a safe place where they can just hang out.
Good stuff. Thanks for the chat, man. I love what you guys are about and I wish you all the best for the future.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you!