Friends Of Exploris Make Presentation On Portaferry Aquarium

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The Friends of Exploris Trust made a presentation to the Down District Council Economic and Cultural Deveopment Committee yesterday  (Monday 30 June).

The future of the Exploris aquarium has been enshrouded in a veil of uncertainty since Ards Borough Council expressed its concerns about the facility and sought a review of how it was funded. To date Exploris has been supported through Ards Borough Council funding and central government support for been sought. The DOE has ringfenced finding for the seal sanctuary but the aquarium and the 42 jobs associated with it are still potentially at risk

[caption id="attachment_50572" align="alignleft" width="390"]Friends of Exploris Ltd members Allison Murphy, Lady Eleanor Brown and Maureen McCarthy pictured just before the presentation at Down District Council to the Economic Development Committee. Friends of Exploris Ltd members Allison Murphy, Lady Eleanor Brown and Maureen McCarthy pictured just before the presentation at Down District Council to the Economic Development Committee.[/caption]

Leading the delegation of the campaigners to keep Exploris open was Lady Eleanor Brown and Imelda Rogan.

Lady Brown explained that this group was a voluntary organisation aiming to see Exploris “reach its true potential, remain in the public sector and wanted to see Exploris develop to become a world class aquarium showcasing Strangford Lough’s internationally important marine diversity.

She said: “Exploris is key to the Destination Strangford Lough tourism plan fro 2013-2018. It is linked with two of the NITB’s signature projects ie. the St Patrick and Christian heritage trails, and the Mourne Coastal Trail. Ards Council has acknowledged that Exploris can attract up to 100,000 visitors annually to this year round destination.

“Also. Exploris presents further opportunities of tourism in the area. And it could add to the major sporting international event in 2015, the Irish Open.”

Lady Brown added that Exploris was vital to the economy of the Ards Peninsula and the Lecale area of Down. It is estimated that visitors generate £3 million to the local economy each year. Potentially 42 jobs could be lost if Exploris closes.

‘And local businesses on both sides of the lough benefit from the footfall. Closure will see this inevitably decline.”

It was also highlighted that Exploris was a unique facility within Ireland showcasing the diversity of the marine life in Strangford Lough and the neighbouring Irish Sea. The lough is a Marine Conservation Zone and an EU Conservation Area and Lady Brown indicated that Down District Council is already deeply committed to its appropriate management.

[caption id="attachment_43452" align="alignright" width="360"]The Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry. The Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry.[/caption]

“It is also important to note that Exploris is a facility for education and conservation.

“Fundamentally, Exploris requires a one-off capital sum for necessary renovations from the Northern Ireland Executive. But in the meantime, the clock is ticking and equality screening and and Equality Impact Assessment are being carried out by Ards Borough Council while a potential closure still hangs in the air.

“Therefore, looking to the future, we believe that funding could be sought from the INTERRREG 2015-2020 cross-border cooperation funding programme. Councils could work together on a joint funding programme. Also, there are a number of marine renewable energy projects in the lough and Exploris could showcase these projects.

“With the help of QUB and other agencies, Exploris could become a centre for research and innovation to the public.

“Essentially the people of Northern Ireland see a bright future for Exoploris with a vibrant, dynamic aquarium, as a platform to showcase our amazing natural resources. Exploris should then be marketed internationally and reach its full potential.”

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Councillors Show Support For Exploris Facility

Councillor Billy Walker (DUP) said: “It would be helpful if the tourism offices were working closely together between the two councils on Exploris to maximise the benefits of marketing. Down District Council certainly should be supporting Exploris as a key facility in the area.”

Councillor Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin) indicated that Down Council revamped its arrangements with the St Patrick Centre and added that that experience could be discussed with representatives from Ards Council and what was entailed.

He said: “We need to sell the whole tourism experience and aquarium package – there will certainly be a positive spillover to other tourism events and facilities if Exploris is optimised is a new plan for the future.”

Councillor Stephen Burns (Sinn Féin) added: “The business plan may be commercially sensitive and the details have been withheld from the Friends of Exploris Trust, but it certainly seems that if  it cost £600,000 per year to support Exploris and generate £3 million in revenue for local businesses then that is a good outcome.”

Councillor Patsy Toman (SDLP) said that “the four councils in merging through the Review of Public Administration need to be focussing on a solution to the Exploris problem.”

Following a contribution from Down District Council Chief Executive John Dumigan explaining that the DRD does not have a family ticket on Strangford Ferry, there was a discussion around the possibility of the DRD introducing a family ticket including entry to Exploris.

The meeting concluded with the committee agreeing to ask the DRD about the possibility of constructing a suitable package for Exploris visitors on the ferry, and also to request the council officers from Down District and Ards Councils work more closely on developing the tourism package to promote Exploris.

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