Executive cash could keep Exploris aquarium open

The council-run Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
The council-run Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

A top tourist attraction threatened with closure will remain open for at least another month after a decision by Ards Borough Council.

The business plan for the Exploris aquarium was accepted at a council meeting last night, subject to the allocation of £900,000 in government funding.

Under the new proposal, the Portaferry facility would close for a major refurbishment – after the peak spring/summer 2014 season – to include investment in new exhibits, enhanced visitor facilities, upgrades to visitor information and increased marketing and promotion.

It also sets out plans aimed at making Exploris a sustainable operation, meaning the aquarium continues to be owned and managed by the council, but with expenditure reduced from around £500,000 each year to £200,000.

Ards mayor Stephen McIlveen said: “The council has now agreed what it believes to be a viable way forward which can enhance and sustain Exploris as a significant regional visitor attraction, but only with regional funding.”

Speaking following last night’s meeting, Cllr McIlveen said: “We have done our part and are ready to continue the work to make this happen. We now need the DoE and the Northern Ireland Executive to confirm their funding to make the redevelopment and retention of Exploris a reality.”

If the rescue plan is supported by the Executive, there would be fewer staff employed and a move to seasonal opening hours would be considered.

“The plan requires some tough decisions and if it proceeds will affect our staff at the aquarium. Throughout this difficult and uncertain period, they have shown great dedication to their jobs and to Exploris.

“They are to be commended for their commitment,” Cllr McIlveen added.

Dr Julia Sigward of the Friends of Exploris Trust said: “Exploris is a world-class aquarium that showcases the natural diversity of Strangford Lough and Northern Ireland, and is dearly loved.”

Exploris is the only public aquarium and seal sanctuary in Northern Ireland.

The sanctuary looks after a number of orphaned and abandoned seals from the Irish Sea and Strangford Lough area, and forms part of the aquarium.

The centre’s future has been uncertain for the last four months.