Exploris: Ards council 'still in the dark' over funding to save Northern Ireland's only aquarium
Ards Borough Council may lose almost a million pounds of funding to save Northern Ireland's only aquarium if it does not spend it by next March.
The council met last night for a special meeting to discuss Environment Minister Mark H Durkan's offer of funding last week.
Exploris Aquarium has been running at a loss for many years, and the council had agreed to close it until Stormont provided capital funding to complete much needed refurbishment work.
However, Ards council chief executive Ashley Boreland revealed last night that the first he heard of the offer was through the media and that the council still had not received a formal offer letter. He also revealed the council received an email yesterday evening saying it must spend the money, or a substantial proportion of it by March 31 next year, or risk losing it.
Mr Boreland told the council that the current transition to the supercouncil and human resourcing issues complicated matters further.
The new North Down and Ards super council will need to approve any plans to renovate Exploris.
"I am not trying to be negative, just trying to be realistic, we have absolutely no detail. The money has to be spent by March or a substantial proportion, if that is 55% or 95%, I have no idea," he told the council, adding the task was a big ask, but not impossible.
After a discussion, councillors voted to accept the Executive's offer of £914k capital funding and up to £120k revenue funding in principle, but to continue its Equality Impact Assessment consultation on closing the facility.
The chief executive was also given the green light to appoint a specialist contractor to develop the design for the work needed at Exploris.
This agreement is subject to receiving detailed terms and conditions from the Department of the Environment to allow the council to reinvigorate the facility, and is also conditional upon gaining the necessary approval from the new North Down and Ards super council.
The super council will meet tonight, but the item is not on the agenda. It may be raised at the end of the meeting.
Ards mayor Philip Smith said the council welcomed the funding offer, but were concerned that "the devil is in the detail".
"Ards Borough Council looks forward to receiving details about the terms and conditions, and how to access it," he said.
"The offer of funding is a vindication of the council's argument throughout this process that the aquarium is a regional facility, and not solely the responsibility of this council or Ards ratepayers.
"I am delighted that it looks like the facility can be saved, while reducing the financial burden on the ratepayer."
Media and the public were initially refused admittance to the meeting, but were later allowed in. Around 10 supporters of Exploris were in attendance.
Ards council voted to close Exploris last year due to the losses it made, but delayed the move four times to allow time for the Executive to make an offer of funding.