THE owners of Oxford Stadium have been accused of putting greed over local people as campaigners fighting to bring greyhound and speedway racing back to the city were given a boost.

The Oxford Mail can exclusively reveal the stadium was still making a profit before it was shut in December 2012, when those behind the business said it was no longer “viable”. The news has given those campaigning to save the Sandy Lane stadium renewed hope that bidders for the site – of which it is believed there have already been several – would be able to revitalise the venue and make money.

With Oxford East MP Andrew Smith’s backing, they are calling for the site’s owners – GRA Acquisition Ltd, Risk Capital Partners and Galliard Homes – to finally sell the stadium.

Mr Smith said: “Owners are just sitting on the stadium site and are seemingly letting it run down.

“Their speculative greed is flying in the face of the overwhelming opinion of local people, the planning designation of the site and the views of the city council.

“There are credible bidders ready to run the stadium, and they must be given the chance to do so.”

‘Figures show Oxford Stadium earned average of £250,000-500,000’

Hundreds of campaigners have called for the re-opening of Oxford Stadium – closed by owners GRA Acquisition on December 29, 2012.

At the time developer Galliard Homes, one of the parent companies of GRA Acquisition, said the reason for the move was the stadium was “not viable”.

Documents seen for the first time by the Oxford Mail have now revealed that despite declining visitor numbers and the loss of a lucrative contract, the Sandy Lane stadium was still in profit the year it closed.

At a public meeting on January 7 this year, Oxford City Council leader Bob Price confirmed he had seen the documents in 2013 and said they showed it was “viable”.

Between January and December 2012 – the stadium’s last year of operation – a total of 202 greyhound meetings were held at the site, pulling in a gross profit of £2,532,905.

The lowest amount made in any given month in 2012 was £183,392 in May.

In December, its last month of operation, total takings were £289,889.

After outgoing expenses, including £798,388 in employment costs and £1,097,878 on departmental costs, the stadium still turned over a final profit of £208,016.

Speedway at the site had ended in 2008 and shortly before closure, the stadium also lost its contract with the Bookmakers’ Afternoon Greyhound Service (BAGS), which runs greyhound meetings specifically for bookmakers such as Ladbrokes and William Hill.

The decision by the BAGS committee cut off a large source of revenue.

According to a former GRA Ltd employee, who did not want to be named, the site’s uncertain future may have contributed to the decision to end the contract.

The former employee added: “Each track is desperate for a BAGS contract. It’s like a TV contract for a football ground; it’s worth a fortune.

“All GRA tracks are now run purely for betting shops through a BAGS contract. They can then race about 12 races for about £12,000 a meeting.

“If it becomes uncertain BAGS revoke that contract.”

By this time the stadium had been bought by London-based private equity firm Risk Capital Partners along with all other stadiums run by GRA Ltd, the original Greyhound Racing Association.

Since then two stadiums, Belle Vue and Hall Green, have been sold and Wimbledon is set to be turned into a football stadium and more than 400 houses after the development was approved by Merton Borough Council.

Oxford Mail:

  • Oxford Stadium as it looks today   

Greyhound commentator Mick Wheble MBE, who worked in the industry for 40 years and has taken a personal interest in Oxford Stadium, also saw the Oxford figures.

He said: “The stadium was making money. It had lost profit but after everything, a copy of the figures showed a profit near to a quarter of a million pounds. We were still getting 1,500 people a week through the turnstiles.”

Gary Baiden, who was racing manager at the site from 1986 until its closure, added: “We were incensed that Galliard could say it was not viable. It’s not a case of believing it was viable; it’s knowing.

“I was privy to the financial figures and the best [profit] on record was £750,000 in the early 2000s. On average it earned anywhere between £200,000 and £500,000.

“The owners’ argument was that without the BAGS contract it wasn’t viable. Actually we could still make a profit; whether it was enough for them I don’t know.”

While the stadium – a heritage site and conservation area – falls into disrepair, at least five individuals have claimed they have submitted bids wishing to buy the site, but to no avail.

Among them was Bob Tyrrell, a Steventon farmer who also had the land valued before entering three bids.

He added he believed the cost of maintaining the stadium after 2012 would have been “virtually nothing, probably a lick of paint and a bit of roofing, but we are only talking a few thousand pounds”.

Clive Feltham of GRA Ltd said the Oxford Mail’s questions should be directed to the “owners”.

Directors at GRA Acquisition, Risk Capital Partners and Galliard Homes did not respond to our questions or requests for comment.

Concern over financial status of stadium owners

Doubts have been raised about Oxford Stadium’s owners’ intentions for the site as it has been revealed the firm is £52m in debt.

GRA Acquisition Ltd appears to be a joint venture by London firm Risk Capital Partners and developer Galliard Homes to handle the disposal of assets owned by the original Greyhound Racing Association, GRA Ltd, which still manages the site.

But critics are uncertain about GRA Acquisition’s ability to continue operating, based on its financial status.

An independent auditors’ report from March 2015 said: “The company’s loan facility of £52,356,539 is repayable on demand and the directors are in on-going discussions with the lender.

“Interest on the loan is being rolled up into the outstanding balance. They are confident that the lender will continue to make the facility available.

“However, without a binding agreement with the lender, there can be no guarantee that the lender will continue to support the company.

“These conditions... indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

The same report shows £731,000 paid in dividends to GRA Acquisition from former subsidiaries, and notes that it owes Galliard Homes £176,480.

So far several GRA Ltd stadiums including Perry Barr and Hall Green have been sold off but only fetched a maximum of £3m, not enough to make a dent in the overall debt.

Andy Cooper, who still runs the Oxford Karting track at the stadium, said: “It would appear that the company is only surviving with additional loans and does not have the ability to operate with funds generated by its own business.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Andy Cooper got a valuation in 2013

Mr Cooper also had the land valued in 2013 by property consultants Carter Jonas and Kemp and Kemp, which concluded the land itself without the buildings was only worth £750,000. With the buildings, given the difficulty of getting planning permission, Mr Cooper estimated the overall worth was £1.25m.

About a month after the stadium closed for good in December 2012, GRA Ltd employees were told one Sunday to dismantle parts of the site including the hare track, toilet cubicles and restaurant.

Exterior locks were broken, fencing pulled away and one wall seemingly taken down brick by brick.

Maureen Ridley, the site’s former general manager who retired after it closed, said: “As soon as they closed the stadium they removed every solitary thing we had.

“Myself and five staff were chosen to take the track up and dismantle the partitions between each level and take the cubicles out of the toilets. The chill system went to Perry Barr, the equipment went to Hall Green and the toilet compartments to Belle Vue. They took the alarm system off because they didn’t want to pay the bill. The stadium closed on December 29 and we left the last Friday in January.”

In its dilapidated state, she added, there were also several break-ins on the site.

Oxford City Council leader Bob Price said the firm would have been within its rights to take the site apart for scrap.

But he added: “What they can’t do is leave the building in an unsafe state for anyone who might have access. Potentially they have created an unsafe environment.”

Ian Sawyer, chairman of the Save Our Stadium campaign, said: “It’s £52m and they are not paying anything off. Surely the bank should be calling their cash in?

“GRA Acquisition are financially in trouble, so they are trying to appease the bank to get money as quickly as they can. The obvious choice is housing.”

When asked why the loan had not been called in, the Irish National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), to which the money is owed, said it could not comment.

Clive Feltham of GRA Ltd said the Oxford Mail’s questions should be directed to the “owners”.

Directors at GRA Acquisition, Risk Capital Partners and Galliard Homes did not respond to our questions.

'It's disgraceful'

Oxford Mail:

Andrew Smith, the MP for Oxford East and a staunch backer of the Save Our Stadium campaign, has contacted NAMA to find out why GRA Acquisition is still trading.

He said: “It’s disgraceful that owners are just sitting on the stadium site, and are seemingly letting it run down, indeed telling employees to pull it apart. 

“Their speculative greed is flying in the face of the overwhelming opinion of local people, the planning designation of the site and the clearly expressed views of the city council. 

“I have written to the chief executive of the NAMA bank they are £52m in debt to, taking up constituents’ concerns at this appalling situation and asking them to do anything they can to bring the stadium back into beneficial use for greyhound racing and speedway as well as the other recreational uses on site. There are credible bidders ready to run the stadium, and they must be given the chance to do so. 

“As a community we must keep up the pressure on the owners and make it clear that they are not going to get their way by dragging things out. I also think it is very helpful that the city council are investigating the options for compulsory purchase. Our message is loud and clear: we are keeping up the fight to save out stadium.”

Clive Feltham of GRA Ltd and directors at GRA Acquisition, Risk Capital Partners and Galliard Homes did not respond to requests for comment.

The questions they need to answer

In 2005, Oxford Stadium’s owner GRA Ltd 
– the original Greyhound Racing Association – was sold to London private equity firm Risk Capital Partners for about £50m. 

With director Clive Feltham at the helm, GRA Ltd continued to manage the site until its closure in 2012. 

In 2013 the company appeared to clear its debts by exchanging its property portfolio with GRA Acquisition, a joint vehicle previously known as Pinco 2211 and incorporated in 2004 by Risk Capital and developers Galliard Homes, seemingly to handle the disposal of GRA Ltd assets. 

One director of GRA Acquisition Ltd is Benedict John Redmond, the founder of Risk Capital Partners. In 2013 Mr Donagh O’Sullivan, a director of Galliard Homes, was also made a director at GRA Acquisition and in July 2015 Luke Johnson, Risk Capital’s co-founder, was made a director at Galliard’s parent company the Galliard Group.

While GRA Acquisition’s debt is now around the £52m mark, silent partner Galliard is also NAMA’s second biggest borrower, with debts of €252m. 
So far a number of GRA Ltd stadiums have been closed down since the sale, with Oxford and Wimbledon earmarked for development.

The Oxford Mail would like to ask the former and current owners:

* Why was Oxford Stadium closed and deemed “not viable” when according to documents from 2012 it was still making a profit?
* Why has the site, a local heritage asset, been allowed to fall into such disrepair to the point where there are fears it is unsafe?
* Why have directors at Risk Capital Partners and Galliard not responded to requests for meetings or comment by local politicians, campaigners and the Oxford Mail?
* How do directors plan to pay off GRA Acquisition’s debt of more than £52m to NAMA?
* Do you have any intention of bringing back greyhound racing and speedway to Oxford Stadium?