The Northern Ireland Executive has been challenged to find the cash to keep Northern Ireland's only aquarium afloat after a council side-stepped a decision on his future.
Exploris in Portaferry received a stay of execution last night as Ards Borough Council unanimously voted to allow two months to find alternative funding.
Councillors, Exploris supporters and trade union Nipsa agreed the aquarium should be funded by the Executive.
The UUP's Philip Smith said: "The ball is firmly in the court of the Department of the Environment, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Assembly."
Last week the council's development committee voted to recommend closure. But last night committee chairman Trevor Cummings of the DUP proposed that two months be allowed to find alternative funding.
Mr Cummings said he believed two months was long enough to "allow firm progress" and liaise with the Stormont.
Mr Smith said the status quo for Exploris is "unsustainable".
"This is why we moved to put it into the private sector, this has now unfortunately failed," he told the council, emphasising that visitor numbers have been falling and the centre costs more than all the borough's leisure centres.
He said that each visitor to Exploris costs the council £7.58, and compared that to Comber Leisure Centre where each user costs the council £1.80, Ards Leisure Centre where each user costs £2.27 and Portaferry Sports Centre where each user costs £6.63.
"It is my view that Exploris is not sustainable and not viable," he said. "This is a regional facility that this council has been carrying and bringing forward for 28 years, it is my view this facility should be funded on a regional basis."
Alliance councillor Alan McDowell accused unionists of "knowing the price of everything and value of nothing".
The council voted unanimously to allow two months to seek regional funding before proceeding to close and dispose of Exploris.
Up to 200 Exploris supporters turned up to council offices and staged a vigil in the rain as the aquarium's future was debated.
Earlier a Nipsa delegation led by Antoinette McMillan was given permission to address the council. She asked the council to defer its decision by four to six months to allow them to work together to lobby Stormont for funding.
But she told councillors that public services "do not exist to make a profit", describing Exploris as "there to provide a service, this is a valuable and unique service".
Exploris employs 18 full-time members of staff, and costs around £500,000 a year to run.
A report found that it brings in around £3m to the local economy.
Nipsa has organised a public meeting to take place at the Portaferry Hotel at 7pm on Monday to agree a way forward to seeking funding to secure its future.
Power to the people as fate of Exploris discussed
The normally sleepy Ards Borough Council offices got a wake-up call last night as hundreds of Exploris supporters turned up to make their presence felt.
Dozens of police were in attendance, too, as bus loads of protesters flowed on to the corner of Church Street holding placards and toy seals, desperately pleading to keep the aquarium open.
The busy teatime traffic in the town slowed to a crawl as commuters beeped their support.
Caroline Nolan of the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership said they were pleased by the numbers that had turned out. The crowd ranged from little children to the very old.
Only 30 of these supporters could cram into the public gallery of the council chamber. Mayor Stephen McIlveen had to silence them as they cheered speeches in support of the aquarium as though they were watching a pantomime.
Despite the rain, the others remained outside for hours in a vigil. It may have been the usual monthly meeting of the council, with scores of issues to deal with, but the issue of Exploris was really the only item on the agenda.
Even as veteran Alliance councillor Kieran McCarthy made his farewell speech, stepping down after 28 years on the council, he couldn't help himself mentioning Exploris, describing himself as a "fervent supporter" to cheers from the gallery.
They had to be quietened again as another enthusiastic Exploris supporter, SDLP councillor Joe Boyle, spoke.
However, there was anger when Mervyn Oswald rose to his feet, claiming the council had been unfairly represented in its dealings with Exploris. The DUP councillor pointed out that Exploris had been an issue for the council for 10 years and claimed it had done everything to save it.
"The place is hemorrhaging money," he said, before claiming the gallery had been "fed a certain diet" – to panto boos from them.
But it was a happy ending when the council voted a two-month stay of execution for Exploris. The tide had turned. As Nipsa spoke of building the campaign to save Exploris, Ms Nolan urged the public to simply come and visit Exploris, voting with their feet to save it.
Why is the aquarium marked for closure?
Exploris is owned by Ards Borough Council and was to be sold off to a private company Livingstone Leisure.
But the company has pulled out of the deal – reportedly over pensions arrangements for the 18 staff who work in the centre.
Last Wednesday evening the development committee of Ards council voted in favour of closing Exploris instead of continuing to run it themselves or seeking another private buyer.
It costs £550,000 a year to run and attracts around 100,000 visitors each year.
DUP councillor Trevor Cummings, who chairs the development committee, said it was a difficult decision.
"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," he said.
But other local representatives and academics are horrified by the committee's recommendation.
Dr Julia Sigwart, the director of Queen's University Belfast's marine laboratory in Portaferry, said Exploris is the most important asset the council owns.
"It is a world-class aquarium that showcases the spectacular and internationally important marine diversity of Strangford Lough," she said.
"We work together on scientific projects and Exploris staff regularly advise our scientists and students on the tricky business of keeping marine animals happy and healthy.
"Our colleagues and visiting scientists from around the world all visit the aquarium and everyone marvels at what a treasure it is."
Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has been open for more than 25 years. It includes a sanctuary for sick or orphaned seals. It also plays a role in research with links to the Queen's University marine laboratory.
The centre originally opened in 1987 as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse local marine life. It was officially reopened as Exploris in 1994 by Prince Charles.
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