Exploris Business Plan Agreed By Ards Council But Awaits Stormont Funding
ARDS Borough Council has agreed a business plan to keep the Exploris aquarium in Portaferry open, subject to confirmation of funding from the NI Executive.
At its meeting this evening (Wednesday 29 January), the Council accepted a business plan, extended the stay on closure for a further month to allow the Executive to review the proposals and make firm offers of finance, and also agreed to write directly to the Ministers of the Environment and Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The document, which sets out plans aimed at making Exploris a sustainable operation, would mean the aquarium continues to be owned and managed by the Council, while expenditure is reduced to what it believes to be an acceptable level – from around £500,000 each year to £200,000.
A reduced financial burden on the local ratepayer is, however, only possible if the Northern Ireland Executive now formally accepts the business case and agrees a financial package, to include revenue for the Seal Sanctuary from the Department of the Environment, together with a substantial one-off capital grant of approximately £900,000.
“The Council has now agreed what it believes to be a viable way forward which can enhance and sustain Exploris as a significant regional visitor attraction, but only with regional funding,” said Mayor of Ards, Councillor Stephen McIlveen. “We have done our part and are ready to continue the work to make this happen. We now need the DoE and the Northern Ireland Executive to confirm their funding to make the redevelopment and retention of Exploris a reality”.
Under the plan, substantial refurbishment of the aquarium would take place, with investment in new exhibits, enhanced visitor facilities, upgrades to visitor information and increased marketing and promotion.
Crucial also to the plan’s successful implementation are working in partnership with other interested parties and the adoption of commercial management practices to include a more affordable, flexible, and therefore reduced, staffing structure, potentially based on the introduction of seasonal opening hours.
“The plan requires some tough decisions and if it proceeds will affect our staff at the aquarium. Throughout this difficult and uncertain period, they have shown great dedication to their jobs and to Exploris. They are to be commended for their commitment”, added Mayor McIlveen.
Should the central government financial package be confirmed, the Council will begin the process of developing plans and appointing design teams and contractors. Exploris would remain open for the spring/summer 2014 peak season, closing temporarily from October 2014 for approximately 6 months to allow redevelopment work to take place.
The business case will now be considered by central government and Exploris continues to welcome visitors.
Shannon Hopeful Of Resolution Of Exploris Difficulty
Strangford MP Jim Shannon speaking after a meeting with DETI Minister Arlene Foster, said it would seem that a way forward may be found.
At the meeting with Minister Foster and Friends of Exploris prior to the Council meeting, it was highlighted that DOE Minister Mark H Durkhan will hopefully commit £120 000 per year to the upkeep of the Seal Sanctuary within Exploris and will continue to do this. Ards Borough Council have prepared a business case that will be referred to the NI Assembly Executive.
“Having spoken to Minister Foster, who is most supportive of Exploris and sees it as we all do as a Northern Ireland Tourist Attraction. The Executive are to consider the business case that will involve a tightening of running costs and will upgrade with a major refurbishment that is sorely needed. The NITB will take a role in the promotion of the centre and will ensure that the new refurbished Exploris will be a major attraction for Northern Ireland right here in Strangford.
“The Friends of Exploris who have been most active in the behind the scenes activities to secure Exploris can be rightly proud of their important and significant role and they have come up with some very good ideas to take Exploris forward and that has to be recognised.
“The future is looking brighter for Exploris if the Ministers are able to deliver what has been suggested and it is clear that the facility cannot solely be the burden of Ards Borough Council but must have input from the Assembly and those around it. I look forward to seeing what the Executive will be able to do with the business case and what they will offer for this regional facility.”