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Portaferry Aquarium Changing Hands to Private Sector
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PORTAFERRY Aquarium, one of Northern Ireland’s top ten tourist attractions, is changing hands.

Following a decision by Ards Borough Council to release the tourist facility to the private sector, the Council has now announced the next steps towards the transfer.

The successful bid to manage the aquarium came from Livingstone Leisure Ltd, a company which specialises in operating visitor attractions, and work has now begun to finalise the 25 year lease of the facility and surrounding parkland.

Livingstone Leisure plans to enhance the visitor experience at Exploris and increase visitor numbers by undertaking an immediate programme of significant re-development work, improving the existing exhibits and introducing new displays.

Ards Borough Council has decided to transfer the Portaferry Exploris aquarium centre into private hands.

In return, although Ards Borough Council will continue to have a financial stake in the aquarium over the next 2 years, the financial burden on ratepayers which runs to around £550,000 annually will be substantially reduced and then eliminated altogether. The Council will also be entitled to share in a percentage of profits achieved.

The aquarium’s employees will transfer under the Transfer of Undertakings legislation (TUPE), which means they move under their existing terms and conditions of employment.

The private sector investment will provide a clear direction for the future of the aquarium, secure its long-term future and ensure that the presence of a substantial visitor attraction continues to be an economic anchor for the town of Portaferry and the wider Ards Peninsula, according to Alderman Robert Gibson, Chairman of the Council’s Development Committee.

He said: “The Council’s existing level of expenditure at Exploris is simply not sustainable, but we recognise equally that the aquarium has a vital role to play in our area’s tourism industry. Our staff are protected at the point of transfer and this private sector investment will refresh the aquarium and boost its appeal, while the leasing arrangement protects the facility and the surrounding land”.

Ian Cunningham, Chief Executive of Livingstone Leisure, added: “We are very much looking forward to working in partnership with Ards Borough Council to expedite a much needed transformation of Exploris. We are committed to eliminating the Council’s on-going financial burden, investing significantly in enhancing the quality of the offering, and following performance improvement in the future, returning a significant share of profitability back to the Council under the proposed terms of the lease”.

 The transfer to Livingstone Leisure is expected to take place in early 2013 and Exploris is open for business as usual.

Ards Borough Council has owned and operated the aquarium since 1987. It began life as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse marine life that exists around Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea. The Council extended and re-opened the aquarium, known as Exploris, in 1994. Prince Charles performed the opening ceremony. The Seal Sanctuary, which provides for the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, orphaned and injured seal pups, was opened in 1999.

The aquarium currently employs 18 Council permanent staff, equating to approximately 15 full-time equivalents and a number of casual workers.

Over the past 20 years, Ards Borough Council has invested £9.1M creating an attraction which has consistently remained in Northern Ireland’s top ten, resulting in over 1.5M visitors to the aquarium itself, boosting Portaferry’s image as a tourist destination and thus attracting significant private investment to the area and contributing to the town’s economy and the Ards Borough’s visitor base.

Livingstone Leisure is managed by Ian Cunningham (CEO) with his business partner Michael Enright, Financial Director.

Mr Cunningham has 30 years’ experience in developing, operating and funding aquarium attractions. He began his career at Sea Life Centre, was the operations director at both the Eden Project and Vardon Attractions and founded Blue Reef Leisure in 2000 to purchase and redevelop visitor attractions. Blue Reef, which operated four aquariums in the UK, was acquired by Spanish visitor attraction group Aspro in 2008. He then became the UK managing director of Aspro before setting up Livingstone Leisure.

The company’s first acquisition as Livingstone Leisure was the Birdland Park and Gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds, UK, in April 2012.