Businesses expecting sea change for Portaferry as Exploris relaunches
Portaferry business owners have hailed the reopening of Northern Ireland's only research aquarium as the start of a new era for the town.
Exploris closed amid funding problems, but reopened yesterday nearly two years after its doors were shut to the public.
The centre, which uses water pumped directly from Strangford Lough in its tanks, was reported to have been running at a loss of around £500,000 a year.
Businesses hit hard times as reduced visitor numbers to the town left many of them struggling to survive.
Marie-Therese Coffey, bar manager at Fiddlers Green, a bed and breakfast and pub in Portaferry, said the area had become a "ghost town" since the closure of the aquarium.
"The aquarium closing was the first major blow for the town, and then the hotel closure followed shortly after," she added.
"But the reopening is fantastic news. We've already had a lot of people calling in saying how good the new Exploris looks and a lot of families booking into the B&B saying they can't wait to come when it reopens.
"This has been a really good year for us. There have been a couple of film crews in the town and already today I've had six tour groups in.
"And now, with Exploris reopening, it really feels like Portaferry is coming into its own once again."
Cahal and Mary Arthurs took over Portaferry Hotel last year after it closed. At the time, the hotel's closure was put down to dwindling tourist numbers in the town caused by the closure of the aquarium. The family also own a butchers' shop, Dumigan's Bar and The Ferry Grill in the town.
Mary Arthurs said: "It was a dark day for when the aquarium closed, and a lot of family businesses weren't able to weather the storm. But we are lucky that things have changed and we don't need to worry about what could have been for the town.
"The redevelopment of the aquarium brought us a lot of business. We have had the management and the workers come and stay with us and people come in for lunch during soft launches. We've already noticed the increase in footfall and a buzz in the town.
"It's wonderful news for Portaferry - the businesses in the town normally do their trade in the summer months and it can be quiet the rest of the year, but the aquarium is an indoor attraction that will bring visitors here whatever the weather is like."
Portaferry businessman and councillor Joe Boyle said he was hailing 2016 as a year of significant investment for the town. Mr Boyle explained the opening of a cultural events centre, the announcement of a new ferry service, housing development and refurbishment of the town's Market House brought investment in excess of £13m.
"It all signifies that the economic revival of Portaferry is certainly on the way back after a number of difficult years," Mr Boyle told the Belfast Telegraph.
"It has been a difficult journey for the community - there are however clear signs that the area is moving in the right direction."