Invest NI now has significant stake in new £12m Belfast aquarium

ReefLIVE's new aquarium could be open by Easter 2022.
Ryan McAleer

INVEST NI has a significant stake in the company behind a £12 million aquarium planned for Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, it has emerged.

The investors behind the tourism venture have said they intend to have it open and operational by Easter 2022, despite the impact Covid-19 has had on overseas tourism.

It will become the largest marine-life visitor attraction on the island, creating 51 full-time jobs, with another 80 to 100 construction jobs involved in the building phase.

Belfast City Council is expected to officially sign off on ReefLIVE’s planning application on Tuesday.

The project initially involved a number of private equity investors based in England.

But according to Companies House, ReefLIVE Limited is now 'significantly controlled' by Invest NI and Belfast-based private equity firm Cordovan Capital Partners.

Cordovan Capital was founded by Mike Irvine in 2011. Mr Irvine set up the Northern Ireland operations of Davy Stockbrokers in 2007, before going on to found his own investment firm.

Parties are considered to have significant control when they own at least 25 per cent of the shares in a company.

ReefLIVE is listed as one of Invest NI’s Co-Fund NI projects. The fund is managed by Clarendon Fund Managers, with the aim of helping businesses access equity finance.

Invest NI said the agency became involved in ReefLIVE as an early stage equity investor, adding that it is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the business. 

In statement, Invest NI's director of corporate finance William McCulla said: “Our early stage seed investment was a commercial investment decision taken by our fund manager. This early stage investment will support the company to develop its proposals to a level that will support further equity investors; and ultimately our investment will be diluted as other investors come on board.”

City planning officials have already recommended that the major tourism venture be approved.

The construction of the aquarium is expected to cost around £10.4 million, but ReefLIVE has said its total investment in the project will reach £12m.

The company has said if it can start construction by January 2021, it intends to be open for Easter 2022, with the goal of attracting 300,000 visitors each year.

That would put it on par with the Odyssey’s nearby W5 science attraction. The last official report of the north’s tourism attractions last year said the Giant’s Causeway had 1.04 million visitors in 2018, ahead of Titanic Belfast, which recorded 585,000.

ReefLIVE’s managing director, Keith Thomas, said the aquarium will offer an educational experience, with a focus on environmental and sustainability issues.

“We welcome the recommendation of Belfast City Council officers, and urge the planning committee to follow their advised approval, so that we can begin the work of bring this visitor attraction to the city.”

Brian Kelly, a director at the project’s planning consultants, Turley said: “The aquarium plans have been enthusiastically welcomed by the general public, and city stakeholders, and we welcome the recommendation for approval by Belfast City Council officers.”

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