|By Josh Baugh, The Eagle, Bryan, Texas
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 27, 2006 - The future of the Memorial Student Center hotel is uncertain, though Texas A&M University and system leaders agree that sweeping changes must be made.
University President Robert Gates proposed to the A&M system's board of regents Thursday that only the facility's six suites be kept functioning. The six deluxe rooms and 34 standard rooms should be converted to student meeting space to address the shortage of places student organizations can assemble, he said.
"One of the concerns we have is that the student groups are increasingly meeting off campus, eroding campus spirit," Gates said during his presentation.
The number of student organizations at A&M has grown from 250 in 1980 to 786 in 2006, he said. Enrollment has increased by 143 percent since 1973, when Rudder Tower was completed, marking the last substantial addition of space used by student organizations.
The Memorial Student Center hotel has lost more than $1 million in the past 14 years. Student fees cover the cost of running the hotel at a deficit.
The accommodations also lack modern-day amenities offered by most hotels, such as high-speed Internet, room service, dedicated food service, convenient parking and a lounge area. Even during the busiest times of year -- such as football season, graduation and Parents Weekend -- the hotel rarely fills up, Gates said.
Constructed in 1951, the hotel originally was needed for A&M visitors because of a lack of hotel options in the area. Now, there are 29 local hotels offering 3,128 rooms, Gates said.
But regents Bill Jones, Erle Nye and Gene Stallings balked at Gates' proposal and offered different visions for the facility and its mission.
"I'm a little uncomfortable having only the six suites," Nye said.
He suggested adding four of the six deluxe rooms to the list of functioning hotel rooms.
"That gives us a little more flexibility for these special-use rooms," he said.
Under Gates' proposal, the suites -- which consist of four regular rooms -- would be used by special university guests and former students.
Stallings suggested that the university seek out donors to pay, for example, $250,000 to use a room for 10 years on home football game weekends only.
"I think you could find 40 people who would pay a bunch of money for those rooms so they can walk to the stadium," said Stallings, a former A&M football coach.
Jones proposed a fund-raising campaign to pay for remodeling the hotel and building more meeting space for students.
"Maybe we're thinking too small about this," he said. "This may be an opportunity to accomplish both."
He said former students like the Memorial Student Center because it's a place for them to congregate.
But the idea of another fund-raising campaign didn't sit well with Nye.
"There's only so much money out there," he said. "We have six major campaigns going on."
Nye said he didn't think there were 40, 20 or even 15 people who would front the amount of money needed for some of the ideas that came out Thursday.
"If we're going to start a major campaign to build a hotel, then I'm all for it," he said. "You've got a facility here that's marginal, at best."
But he said another fund-raiser could take away from other projects, such as a band hall or the proposed indoor athletic practice facility, which will come before the regents Friday for approval.
Board Chairman John White ended the discussion, saying it was an important, emotional matter, and that those regents who'd made suggestions should meet with Gates to work toward a solution.
While there will be no vote by the regents on the future of the hotel, Gates said it was important that he get the board's sense of what it thought should be done. But he told the regents he hoped for a consensus soon because he needed to move forward on the matter.
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Copyright (c) 2006, The Eagle, Bryan, Texas
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