Exploris aquarium could be gone by March, MLAs warned
The Exploris aquarium could close down as soon as March next year if owner Ards Borough Council goes ahead with its proposals, Stormont's enterprise committee has heard.
If councillors decide to go ahead with the closure at the end of the current two-month grace period, a process of public consultation and equality assessments will then be triggered, according to Ards Council chief executive Ashley Boreland.
That could mean the aquarium closing down by March 2014, but the doors could close even earlier, he said.
Mr Boreland said it would be "a matter of regret" to him if Northern Ireland's only aquarium were to close, but it has been running at an annual deficit of £600,000 a year, although this is expected to drop to around £150,000 as a number of loans have been paid.
Since councillors voted to close Exploris, Ards Council has not approached Tourism Minister Arlene Foster to ask for Government support, he said.
Committee chairman Patsy McGlone expressed surprise that the Tourism Minister had not been approached, pointing out that Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which comes under Mrs Foster's jurisdiction, has said it cannot provide support but has offered to look for other options.
He commented: "Surely this is a tourist facility? Amazing."
Yesterday morning, around 60 people gathered outside Exploris to protest over the proposed closure, including a group of schoolchildren from St Mary's Primary who were waving placards shaped like sea creatures.
Cathie McKimm of Friends of Exploris said tens of thousands of people around the world have supported a vigorous social media campaign to save Exploris since the news of its closure broke.
Meanwhile, the loss of the 100,000 visitors a year that Exploris attracts could threaten many commercial initiatives in Portaferry – including the ferry service to Strangford, according to Doug Edmondson, chairman of Portaferry Regeneration Ltd.
Earlier this month, Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said she could not commit to funding the aquarium. The minister said this could result in a queue of facilities claiming to be of regional importance.
STORY SO FAR
Exploris is one of the top 10 paying tourist attractions in Northern Ireland and has welcomed more than two million visitors through its doors. However, it has been running at an annual deficit of £600,000 and Ards Borough Council has been trying to find ways to "reduce the financial burden" by seeking private sector involvement. Livingstone Leisure submitted a successful bid to take over the aquarium on a 25-year lease but the deal fell through earlier this month.