Letters appealing for financial assistance to secure the future of Exploris in Portaferry have been sent to five ministerial departments in Northern Ireland – in a bid for it to be delivered a lifeline.
Strangford DUP MP Jim Shannon completed the paperwork as smiles beamed across the faces of Portaferry residents after Ards Borough Council agreed unanimously to defer the decision on the closure of Exploris – the aquarium and seal sanctuary in Portaferry – for two months.
On Wednesday night, the council was expected to vote to recommend the closure of the aquarium over running costs, and sell it on. But instead they unanimously agreed “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)”.
Ards council had previously been seeking private sector investment in the facility to reduce “the financial burden on the ratepayer which amounts to some £600K each year”. But that fell through.
Mr Shannon last night said: “The deferment gives us time to contact five ministerial departments. I have sent letters today to the DOE, DARD, DETI, DCAL for their responsibility in the Loughs Agency, and Department of Education.
“The reason why we have done that is because we feel that Exploris in Portaferry is a tourist attraction for the whole of Northern Ireland and we feel it should not be placed solely on the shoulders of one small council, Ards, which has spent £9.1 million on the facility in the last 20 years.
“It is about making it more viable and getting new investment. If those five departments collectively or singly decide they can do that then that is the way forward.”
Former manager of Exploris, Caroline Nolan – now a member of Friends of Exploris – yesterday said she believed alleviating council costs for the aquarium “was really possible”.
“We are going to try to set up meetings with the Executive and start looking at models of other aquaria to see how to take Exploris forward, and get those into the council,” she said. “I think this is really possible and we hope to come back to the council with some sensible proposals that could be workable.”
Ahead of Wednesday nights meeting, more than 100 people gathered outside the council’s headquarters to protest at the proposed closure.
Thousands of people had also signed an online petition to keep the facility open.
Eighteen people are currently employed on permanent contracts at Exploris.
Deputy Mayor of Ards, Councillor Philip Smith, 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.”