Northern Ireland

Exploris aquarium's future in doubt as firm pulls outs

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Media captionExploris houses marine exhibitions and a seal santuary on the shores of Strangford Lough

One of Northern Ireland's top tourist attractions is facing an uncertain future after a private company that was due to take it over pulled out.

The Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down, has been open since 1987.

The private firm, Livingstone Leisure, had been in talks to take it over from Ards Council, but pulled out after failing to reach a deal on pensions.

Portaferry Regeneration Ltd said Stormont should assume responsibility for the attraction.

Councillors will discuss the future options, including possible closure, at a meeting on Wednesday evening.

Ards Borough Council will now have to decide whether to seek an alternative private buyer, continue to operate the aquarium itself, or close it.

Exploris is situated on the shores of Strangford Lough and currently employs 18 permanent staff.

It houses marine exhibitions and a seal sanctuary that helps to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned seal pups.

Image caption The centre has been caring for sick, orphaned and injured seal pups since 1999

When it first opened, it was known as the Northern Ireland Aquarium, but throughout its 26-year history it has always been owned and operated by Ards Borough Council.

Since then, the council has invested more than £9m in the facility.

It has recently been seeking ways to reduce the costs to ratepayers of running the facility and sought investment from the private sector.

Livingstone Leisure submitted a successful bid to take over the aquarium and surrounding parkland on a 25-year lease.

It was hoped the arrangement would secure investment for the future development of Exploris and a due diligence process to finalise the deal began in November 2012.

However, the council statement on Wednesday said Livingstone Leisure is now "unable to put in place the broadly comparable pension scheme required for existing staff and as a result, the business has withdrawn from the process".

The statement added that "Exploris is open for business as usual" while the council considers the way forward.

Portaferry Regeneration Ltd said Exploris was a "national asset" that was "vital" to the economy of the Portaferry area.

"Any permanent closure would be a devastating blow to that economy and the regeneration of the area," it said.

"On its reported figures Exploris has in the past brought over 100,000 visitors into the area annually from across Northern Ireland.

"Such a loss of footfall must impact adversely on the ferry itself, Portaferry, Strangford and the wider local economy.

"Since at least two Stormont ministers have recently visited Exploris and publicly recognized its significance as a 'national asset' surely the better solution is for the responsibility to be moved from Ards Borough Council's budget to the appropriate ministry within the Stormont budget."

The matter is due to be discussed at a meeting of the council's development committee later and any recommendations will go to a full meeting of the council next week.