Exploris Aquarium Case Heard By Assembly Enterprise Committee
AT the Enterprise, Trade and Industry Assembly Committee meeting today (Wednesday 23 October) held in Exploris Aquarium, NIPSA trade unionists, Friends of Exploris and Portaferry Regeneration Ltd jointly called on the Northern Ireland Executive to show their commitment to a new vision for Northern Ireland’s unique public aquarium.
It was a long and detailed meeting and following the presentations, Chairman of the Enterprise Committee Patsy McGone said it would be “madness” if Exploris was closed.
This article is just a selection of comments from around the meeting and afterwards. Down News will post the Assembly video link when it is available for your full scrutiny.
Doug Edmondson, Chairman of Portaferry Regeneration Ltd, opened his remarks by saying that his committee’s case revolved around four points:
* that Exploris was a lynch pin for tourism
* that Exploris was vital to the economy of Portaferry and Ards peninsula
* that Exploris plays an EU conservation role
* that there must be a strategy put forward for the continuation of Exploris.
“Closure will impact on local Ards village such as Portavogie, Kircubbbin, Cloughy, Ballyhalbert,and even the Mount Stewart estate. What we need is short-term funding in order to stabilise the future of Exploris so we can create a sustainable long term strategy.
Doug Edmondson added: “At a public meeting in Portaferry organised by NIPSA, unanimous approval was given to the motion that Exploris be supported by central government funding.
“Exploris Aquarium was too valuable an asset regionally for the Council to fund alone and should be supported centrally by government.”
The visit by the Enterprise Committee followed a proposal from the Sinn Féin Deputy Chair of the Committee, Phil Flanagan MLA. Speaking ahead of the visit, Mr Flanagan said: “The closure of the Exploris centre would be a huge loss to the local economy and those who depend on it for passing trade in the wider area.
“The aquarium attracts 100,000 people a year into one of the most deprived parts of the north, which is something that needs to be factored into any decision.
“The long term impact of this decision would be the closure of a number of businesses in Portaferry and £3 million being lost to the local economy every year.
“Despite this striking economic impact, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster, who has responsibility for tourism, has been invisible on this issue so far.
“The Committee is visiting the facility to show our support for its retention, to hear first-hand the impact it has on the local economy and to discuss potential funding arrangements with interested parties.
“The closure of such a centre if it were in the Titanic quarter might very well grab the Minister’s attention, but as it is based in Portaferry and her DUP council colleagues have set their minds towards closing it.
“We have heard nothing useful from the Minister with regards to how she plans to protect it.
“All too often areas are faced with the threatened closure of privately owned companies and the associated job loses that come with closure.
“In this instance government must play a key role in ensuring the jobs at Exploris are protected and the overall tourism potential of the site is invested in and developed into the potentially world-class site that it could become.”
The meeting, which was held in the Exploris aquarium overlooking the seal sanctuary where some of the Exploris’ twelve seal pups played around, heard a presentation by Friends of Exploris organiser Cathy McKimm who explained the vision for Exploris.
She said Exploris supports the Programme for Government and that it was a huge educational asset for the people of Northern Ireland from primary school to post-graduate level and improves its financial performance.
The vision set out before the Committee by Friends of Exploris is to :
* Engage the public with the marine life of Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea in line with new marine legislation and the Strangford Lough Marine Conservation Zone
* Conserve common seals to meet requirements under EU legislation and the Special Area of Conservation Designation
* Engage the public with the marine renewable energy industry
* Continue to attract 100,000 visitors per year
* Provide a year round tourism information centre in what is being marketed by NITB and local councils as a 365 day Strangford Lough Destination
* Continue to deliver £3m for the local economy
* Provide a much needed education resource for our schools and colleges and an inspiration for the next generation of marine scientists
* Support marine research through its marine aquarium expertise and unique seawater system
* Support the socio-economic fabric of a rural area
Cathy McKimm added: “This will all be lost to the people of Northern Ireland if Exploris is closed or operated solely for profit. Exploris is not a failed visitor attraction, as every year for two decades it has attracted 100,000 visitors and every year it has put £3m into the local economy.
“To achieve the vision requires an initial investment in the displays and the building, followed by the introduction of a new operating model which will turn around the business, improve the visitor experience and forge a strong partnership with the local community, business interests and marine conservationists.
“We need a ten year development plan for Exploris. Part of the current problem is because of the uncertainty about the future of Exploris we have not a plan to put forward to funders to secure key funding which would have gone a long way to solving the deficit. Funders will not pay out unless this is in place, and it isn’t.
NIPSA representative Antionette McMullan presenting the union’s position said: “A unique plan should be funded by central government. There has been a significant change proposed to staff wages and conditions. Redundancies are just not acceptible.
“Exploris is a unique facility and an asset to Northern Ireland. It must be protected for future generations. It fits in the with the Programme for Government and Portferry itself is in an area of social and economic deprivation.
“It is certainly the best location for a regional aquarium. Strangford Lough has a number of key designations which support this. This is all about creating jobs in the longer term across the area and we are looking at the threat to 42 jibs in thsi facility.
“Most people who visit Exploris it is a unique and authentic experience. The loss if visitors will impact widely on transport as well as tourist beds. Therefore, given that this is the only facility of its kind in Northern Ireland we do need to preserve it and develop it. It is a precious resource.”
Anna Lo and Fergal McKinney, Assembly Committee members, pressed NIPSA representatives over whether they could accept private sector investment and Antionette McMullan explained: “Central government funding is the only solution here. If a private contractor came aboard, Portaferry could lose its park area adjacent to Exploris. This would be a big blow to the town also.”
What the Local Politicians Said
Kieran McCarthy MLA (Alliance and Committee Member) said: “I fully support the retention of Exploris. We must find a solution to keep it open. Ir is a place of Northern Ireland significance and we must not underestimate its role on our economy, education, social life and on the environment.
“We need to find the right mix of funding so Exploris has a future so it can develop into the facility that it should be.
“It is ironic that while the First and Depity First Minister are over in the United States trying to drum up jobs in Northern Ireland we could lose at least 42 jobs in Exploris closes, and many local businesses will be impacted a a result.
“Surely a petition on Facebook supported by 25,000 people must speak volumes. No-one on this area wants Exploris to close and the Friends of Exploris have succeeded in pulling this together.
Ards Borough Councillor Joe Boyle (SDLP) said that is was “an excellent opportunity for the Enterprise Committee to see first hand what Exploris was all about. The campaign to save Exploris has gone a long way and everyone in te community here has been very supportive, but we do need a positive outcome on this. It is not an option to close Exploris.
“We certainly as a Council should have written to DETI and Minister Foster first and created a good dialogue but this for some reason has just not happened.
“Exploris was originally the Northern Ireland Aquarium and was under the Council umbrella of recreation and protected by statutory funding through the Recreation Department.
“Then after a rebranding exercise it became Exploris and some time after that it moved to Tourism under Economic Development and funding was not protected through Council. When the Director of Economic Development left this matter drifted further to the point some councillors are actively opposed to Exploris and have labelled it a burden on the ratepayers.
“I am deeply concerned at the community relations impact of all of this. We clearly have a situation in the Strangford constituency where a minority population are being severely disadvantaged by a Council decision. In Strangford 4/5ths of the population are protestant and in Portaferry town, 4/5ths are Catholic.
After the RPA merger with North Down in the next two years this figure will alter again as the Catholic population will only be a 1/10th of the new Council borough. Therefore the closure of Exploris has very serious community relation implications and I will be be keeping an eye on this issue. When a consultant is appointed I will be ensuring that they are fully independent.
“We have excellent community relations in Portaferry between the communities and this is something I have always worked to promote. So we must be very mindful of this aspect of the Exploris issue. I am deeply concerned that the Council has allowed the situation to get to this stage causing so much uncertainty to the staff and the local tourist and business interests impacted by Exploris. Much m0re could have been done to look at the real options for moving forward in a fair and equitable manner.
“The reality now is that this matter could drag in until April and we are running then into a local government election for the new shadow Council merging with North Down.
“This again will affect the process regarding Exploris. With the Christmas break ahead, time may slip and this will mitigate against Exploris, but I can assure you, myself and a number of other councillors will not be considering the closure opion. This is just not acceptible.
“It may well be that Council is told to maintain Exploris by the Assembly, but we will have to wait and see on that. I think the Enterprise Committee certainly looked favourably on this predicament and a lot of hard and honest questions were certainly asked.”
Ards Borough Councillor Alan McDowell (Alliance) said: “This was a very useful and positive exercise for the DETI Committee to come to Exploris in Portaferry. There was an excellent turnout from local supporters, staff, and school pupils.
“A group of councillors are making great efforts to keep it open. Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy has put forward a motion for discussion on 5 November in the Assembly so that will be an important day when the petition can be handed in and protesters can come along and support Exploris at Stormont.
“I think Ards Borough Council have an obligation to ensure that Exploris continues. The true sum needed to keep it afloat is probably closer to £3-400,000. Therefore it is not really a drain on the Council. It will cost over £1million to close Exploris. Such an action of closure does not make any sense.
“There is a huge amount of work being done behind the scenes by those Councillors and MLA’s who support Exploris. This matter needs a clear and speedy resolution.”
Fundamentally, Ards Borough Council have to prove that their decision to close Exploris is based on a proper business case and equality proofed. These points may yet be more difficult to achieve as all eyes will be focused on the Exploris process until matter is resolved.
The Ards Borough Council Chief Executive Ashley Boreman presenting the case for the Council said: ” “The aquarium first opened in 1987and was rebranded as Exploris in 1994.
“The real figure we are looking at is £450,000 of a deficit which the Council has to fund. The key attendance figures for exploris range between 78500-111,000. This year they are running at 65-75,000. The 3 1/2% dip on consumer spend and cuts in school budgets have impacted on these figures.
“Back in 2007 we tried to find a private operator to run Exploris but out of five then who tendered none were suitable as they could not meet the criteria regarding staff pensions.
“A Council officer did contact the DOE on the issue of Exploris but we did not receive feedback to progress on it.
“Ultimately a closure plan will be triggered if no funding is found which will be approved by Council. “
Mr Boreland emphasised that “this is not a leisure facility.” He also indicated that a marketing budget had been allocated to promote Exploris, and he rejected the idea that Exploris had been allowed to wither on the vine as the campaigners had indicated.