An aquarium and seal sanctuary which attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year is now threatened with closure.
The Exploris Centre in Portaferry makes a roughly £600,000 loss annually, and the council is now considering axing it completely.
A spokeswoman for Ards Borough Council said it gets roughly 90,000 visitors every year but the paid-for attraction – the only one of its kind in the Province – is still only able to recoup about £400,000 of its £1m-or-so annual costs.
The council had been aiming to lease the facility to a private operator, Livingstone Leisure, in a 25-year deal.
Councillors were told last week this was not going to happen after all, and then on Wednesday, in a meeting which lasted until about 11pm, the council development committee voted to recommend closure and sale of the site.
Its decision is not final, however. It still has to be voted on by the full council, something which is due to happen on Wednesday.
If it passes that vote, it will trigger a consultation with Exploris’s 18 staff and their unions, which will take at least two months.
If closure does go ahead, the fate of the centre’s creatures – including four seals at the sanctuary – is not yet known.
A statement sent out by the council yesterday quoted committee chairman, Trevor Cummings (DUP), as saying: “This is not a recommendation we make lightly, knowing that it will impact directly on our staff, the town of Portaferry and the wider tourism base.
“However, the level of expenditure required is not sustainable in this economic climate when we face so many financial pressures, and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option.”
The aquarium has been in Portaferry since 1987. It was later re-opened by Prince Charles after a revamp, and renamed Exploris.