Sunday 20 October 2019 01:59:43 AM

Ards Borough Council Agrees To Defer Portaferry Exploris Closure
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BREAKING NEWS: Ards Borough Council has agreed unanimously to defer the closure of Exploris, the aquarium and seal sanctuary in Portaferry.

The decision came at a crunch session of the Council this evening (25 September) when it was agreed that the closure would be stayed for two months, to allow for firm proposals for alternative funding to come from central government departments – Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Environment (DoE) and Education (DE).

The Facebook page of the Friends of Portaferry Aquarium says it all - over 6500 likes.

The Facebook page of the Friends of Portaferry Aquarium says it all – over 16,500 Likes and growing.

The Council had been seeking private sector investment in the facility in a bid to reduce the financial burden on the ratepayer which amounts to some £600K each year.

However, the company which was to manage the facility, Livingstone Leisure, withdrew from the process, after confirming that, under the rules which apply in Northern Ireland, it was unable to put in place the broadly comparable pension scheme required for existing staf

Councillor Philip Smith, Deputy Mayor of Ards, said: “While there has never been any indication of a subvention for Exploris from central government, there does now appear to be a possibility that funding could be made available. Our decision allows time for that option to be explored. However, we do have to emphasise that the decision to close still stands if external funding is not forthcoming

Following a very short and vigorous initial campaign, supporters for the aquarium  won this first battle when the Council voted unanimously for the deferral and Exploris remains open for business.

Ards Borough Council has owned and operated the aquarium since 1987. It began life as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse marine life that exists around Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea.

The Council extended and re-opened the aquarium, known as Exploris, in 1994. Prince Charles performed the opening ceremony. The Seal Sanctuary, which provides for the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, orphaned and injured seal pups, was opened in 1999.  Since 1992, the Council has invested £10.8M (net).

Currently, the Council currently employs 18 permanent staff, equating to approximately 15 Full-Time Equivalents and a number of casual workers.

Ritchie seeks Minister’s support over planned closure of Exploris

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has written to the Minister for the Environment seeking his support to challenge plans by Ards Borough Council to close the council-run Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down.

Speaking ahead of the Wednesday evening Council meeting which decided a two month stay of execution on Exploris,  Ms Ritchie said: “I am deeply dismayed, as are many of my constituents, by the proposed closure and sale of one of our greatest tourist attractions in Northern Ireland-the Exploris facility.

“Exploris is important to tourist development and investment opportunities in Strangford and Lecale. Through the use of the Strangford Ferry, many people visit the Lough area, it is a major attraction and should remain open.

“Exploris contributes directly to the tourism economy in South Down, and complements the family friendly cultural tourism on offer in the neighbouring St Patrick’s Country and Lecale area. It is vital that Exploris, a highly respected and loved tourism attraction is given every opportunity by Ards Borough Council to continue trading.

“This tourist amenity also tells the story of the diverse marine environment-mammals, fish, flora and fauna of Strangford Lough. To close the facility would be detrimental to education provision in this area, and also in the island of Ireland-North and South.

“I have written to the Minister for the Environment to intervene as Minister withresponsibility for Local Government. I hope that Minister Durkin can prevail upon Ards Borough Council to think again on closure and work to find an alternative solution.

“I accept that there are challenges in terms of finding ways to meet the costs of the facility but the Council must not act hastily. There are 18 jobs at stake in Exploris, never mind the wider implications for jobs, investment opportunities and the wider economy in the surrounding area if it is shut down.”