Exploris saved: Northern Ireland's only aquarium to reopen in summer after £1.5m investment
Durkan: Well done to Ards and North Down Borough Council for reeling this in
Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has been saved following an investment of £1.5m.
The aquarium has been beset by problems and threats of closure for the past three years.
Ards and North Down Borough Council announced on Thursday that construction work will start on site after Easter.
It will reopen in the summer under a new operator, the company responsible for Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, following refurbishment.
The work represents an investment of almost £1.5m. £914,000 of this is from the Department of the Environment and the remainder is from the council and new operator. It is thought the investment will create around 35 jobs.
Crumlin Road Gaol Ltd will operate the aquarium and seal sanctuary on behalf of the council. The company has enjoyed success with Crumlin Road Gaol, which is one of the top three visitor attractions in Northern Ireland.
Welcoming the announcement, Mayor of Ards and North Down, Alderman Alan Graham, said: "Ards and North Down Borough Council could not be more delighted to make this announcement and confirm details for the reopening of Exploris this summer.
"We are very pleased to have appointed such an innovative company as Crumlin Road Goal to operate the aquarium and seal sanctuary for us. Their proposals are robust and promise to deliver a first class visitor attraction that will contribute to public understanding of marine life and make a very strong contribution to the regeneration and economic life of Portaferry, as well as the wider Ards and North Down area.
He added: “We are very grateful for the financial support provided by the Department of the Environment for the refurbishment works. We appreciate the support provided by Minister Durkin and his officials throughout the process of securing this grant.”
Councillor Joe Boyle, who proposed the motion to approve the funding, said he was delighted.
"I've been campaigning on this issue for the past three years. It's good to see Portaferry getting back on its feet."
The contract with CRG Ltd is for a minimum of 25 years. CRG Ltd has committed to investing at least £2m into the facility during the life of the contract.
CRG has developed a partnership with Oceanworld Aquarium in Dingle, Co Kerry to assist with the development of specialist educational and conservation programmes around marine life at the aquarium.
Kieran Quinn, Managing Director with CRG Ltd, said: "It’s going to be an exciting opportunity working with Ards and North Down Borough Council and other stakeholders in the Portaferry area to create a first class visitor attraction that will be entertaining and educational for visitors.
"With the expertise Kevin Flannery and his colleagues from Dingle Oceanworld we will have the right team in place to ensure the Aquarium becomes one of the best in Europe.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said the announcement was a "tremendous boost for the residents and businesses in Portaferry".
"I salute them and the Friends of Exploris Group for their successful campaign to keep the aquarium in their town afloat.
"They undoubtedly faced uncertain times and I was pleased to secure funding of over £900,000 which with council funding, now means work on the new aquarium can begin after Easter.
"This is also a tremendous boost for tourism in the North. A refurbished, modern aquarium will be yet another attraction to bring tourists to our shores.
"Well done to Ards and North Down Borough Council for reeling this in."
When news of the aquarium's closure was announced in 2013 it sparked a global 'Save Exploris' campaign on social media.
Thousands of people across the globe posted pictures of themselves posing with a 'Save Exploris' sign in a bid to earn a reprieve for the aquarium.
Sean Clifford, who organised the photo campaign, said photos had flooded in from as far afield as Honduras, Sweden, Australia, Afghanistan, Peru and Japan urging Stormont to step in to save the doomed marine conservation facility.
Tweeting with hashtag #saveexploris social media users asked people to sign petitions and recalled their memories of visiting the Portaferry-based aquarium.
The axe started swinging above Exploris in September 2013 when the previous Ards Borough Council voted to give it two months to find funding or face being sold off.
A number of councillors argued that at £600,000 a year to run, the aquarium was too expensive for ratepayers to retain.
This sparked an outcry among supporters of Exploris, who staged protests outside council meetings and gathered petitions aimed at keeping it open.
Earlier that year private firm Livingstone Leisure submitted a bid to take over the aquarium, but it subsequently fell through.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan stepped in pledging first support for the seal sanctuary attached to Exploris, then later for the aquarium itself.
In August 2014 Ards Council voted to accept an offer of money from the Executive of £914,000 capital funding and up to £120,000 revenue funding in principle, but to continue its equality impact assessment consultation on closing the facility.
The new Ards and North Down Council inherited the ongoing situation when it took over last April.
The aquarium has been council-run since it opened in 1987.
The seal sanctuary attached to Exploris has continued to help and rescue the animals throughout the aquarium's closure.