30/01/2014

Council Agrees Exploris Business Plan

A business plan has been agreed by Ards Borough Council in the hopes of keeping Exploris Aquarium open.

The local authority met to discuss the future of the popular tourist attraction on Wednesday evening. Following the meeting, it released a statement to say it had agreed a business plan, but it was now subject to confirmation of funding from the Northern Ireland Executive.

In addition, the Council said it had pushed the threatened closure of the aquarium back for another month in order to allow the Executive to review the proposals and make a financial offer. It also agreed to write directly to the Ministers of the Environment and Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

The document, which outlines plans to make Exploris a sustainable operation, would see the attraction continued to be owned and managed by the Council, with expenditure thought to be reduced from around £500,000 each year, to just £200,000.

The reduced cost is however only possible if the NI Executive formally accepts the business plan and agrees a financial package, a statement from Ards Borough Council said.

It is understood the package would include revenue for the Seal Sanctuary from the Department of the Environment, together with a substantial one-off capital grant of approximately £900,000. Under the plan, substantial refurbishment of the aquarium would also take place, with investment in new exhibits, enhanced visitor facilities, upgrades to visitor information and increased marketing and promotion. There could also be a shorter visitor season and fewer staff.

Mayor of Ards, Councillor Stephen McIlveen, explained: "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.

"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.

"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."

Should the financial package be confirmed, the Council will commence the process of developing plans and appointing design teams and contractors. Exploris would remain open for the spring/summer 2014 peak season, and close temporarily from October 2014 for approximately six months to allow redevelopment work to take place.

(JP/CD)

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