Ards Borough Council last night voted unanimously to keep the troubled Exploris aquarium open for another two months to see if it can be rescued.
UUP councillor Angus Carson said last night that it had been agreed to use the time to see if the Department of Enterprise or the Department of Agriculture could take the facility over.
“If this cannot be done we agreed that we would close and dispose of Exploris after the two months is up,” he said.
The crunch meeting to consider the future of Exploris – which cares for sick, injured and orphaned seals – came after private sector investment in the landmark facility collapsed.
Ards Council said private investment was sought to reduce the financial burden on the ratepayer of £600K each year. They said the decision to propose closure was “primarily a business decision”.
Last week DUP councillor Trevor Cummings, who chairs the development committee, said the level of expenditure required to keep the centre open was “not sustainable in this economic climate when we face so many financial pressures, and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option”.
But UKIP Northern Ireland chairman and Kilkeel councillor Henry Reilly last night condemned moves to close the facility.
“My own children always looked forward to visiting the centre when they were young and it was always a great family day out to take the ferry across Strangford lough and spend a day in the aquarium and the Ards peninsula,” he said.
“The attraction brings several million pounds into the area annually in indirect visitor spend.
“The argument being pushed that the aquarium is a loss making business is utter nonsense as councils have a statutory duty to promote tourism and provide such facilities.
“If councils are to adopt a policy of closing every loss making facility there will be no swimming pools, sports centres, community centres, playing fields or museums in Northern Ireland and we would quickly return to Victorian times when only the rich and very wealthy could enjoy such attractions.
“The fact is that the Exploris aquarium still attracts huge numbers of people every year despite being starved of investment and development funds for years.”
The council currently employs 18 permanent staff in Exploris and its says that if the closure proceeds, ”a plan will be developed to ensure the proper care of all animal stock”.
Prior to the council meeting last night, Caroline Nolan from Friends of Exploris said the facility’s closure “would tear the beating heart out of Portaferry”.
Ms Nolan, 50, who ran Exploris when it was first set up in 1994, said she felt closing the Portaferry attraction was “doing the wrong thing at the wrong time”.
“Tourism is on the boom in Northern Ireland and we are hopefully going to ride the crest of a wave,” she said.
“We have huge money being invested in the Mourne coastal route and Saint Patrick’s route and Portaferry is on both these routes. We should be investing in all the facilities along those routes, so why go against central government policy?”