Exploris is thrown another lifeline by Ards Borough Council
Northern Ireland's only aquarium Exploris has been handed its fourth stay of execution.
Ards Borough Council voted to allow yet another month for Stormont to consider a business case it has submitted for regional funding.
SDLP and Alliance have expressed disappointment that a motion to give Exploris another six months was voted down. Councillor Joe Boyle said he made the proposal to allow Stormont more time to consider funding, and also ensure that Exploris stays open during its busiest time of the year.
It is understood that Environment Minister Mark H Durkan told the council that he plans to raise the situation at the March meeting of the Executive.
"Exploris will get 80% of its annual visitors in the coming months, it makes no sense to close it now and will lose the council more money," he said.
"We also need to allow more time for Stormont to consider regional funding. We have received positive letters from Environment Minister Mark H Durkan and Tourism Minister Arlene Foster in the last week.
"If we had received letters saying there was no chance of funding I would accept that, but we haven't. A six-month extension makes more sense to Exploris to stay open for the busy summer season and to allow Stormont more time to consider our proposal."
Alliance councillor Kellie Armstrong backed the SDLP position.
"I believe suspending any further decision on Exploris for six months is the most realistic way to save the facility long-term," she said,
"People across Northern Ireland have made it clear that Exploris is a treasured tourist facility – enjoyed by the young and old. Rather than simply giving up, we owe it to the public to do everything possible to save it.
"Six months is adequate time for the appropriate work to be undertaken around the business case already submitted by Ards Borough Council. We need to give the process time."
Last September the council voted to close Exploris unless funding could be found to keep it open.
It initially allowed two months to find this funding, however this was extended in November, December and January by one month each time.
On Wednesday evening the council voted again to allow one month to allow Stormont to continue considering the business case it has submitted for regional funding.
It is understood the business plan recommends the facility change to seasonal opening, with running costs reduced from £500,000 to £200,000.
If approved, it would close for six months from October.
The widely backed Save Exploris campaign has already received a boost after the Department of the Environment agreed to commit £120,000 a year to maintain the seal sanctuary and to make a one-off payment of £45,000 to upgrade the facility.
However, the council is waiting a final verdict from Stormont on the remainder of the funding which it has requested.