|By Elizabeth Findell, The Monitor,
McAllen, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 03, 2011--SAN JUAN -- The Pilgrim House at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle National Shrine is no more.
In its place: the recently revamped Basilica Hotel and Cafe, where Rev. Amador Garza, who became the basilica's rector a year ago, is planning to scrap the former limitations of the 92-room location and start anew.
"I now want to open it as a regular hotel all week long," Garza said. "I want to get it on Travelocity and open it to the general public."
The move marks a departure from the hotel's traditional role as a resting place for pilgrims available only on the weekends. Garza's goal is to make it a lodge for anyone who wants to stay there, and a revenue source for the basilica.
"The philosophy was that they were providing services to pilgrims, so it didn't need to make money," he said.
"That is not the philosophy I espouse."
The renovations are about 75 percent complete and will cost about $1.2 million, basilica staff said. The new rooms will be deluxe compared to what they had before. There are now glistening marble desktops, and there will be electronic keypad entry and televisions in every room.
Garza has taken a hands-on approach to the project. He even chose which wooden chairs would be built in Matamoros for the hotel, testing the options personally.
"I just wanted something simple and comfortable," he said. "I sat on all the models they brought me."
One downstairs wing has been designed so it can be closed off for dignitaries and visiting bishops. That area has its own kitchen and private living room with lounge chairs and a big-screen television.
The hotel's rate, now at $49.99 per night, is expected to increase a bit, Garza said. In the meantime, the basilica has not done any marketing for the hotel, but is already allowing mid-week visitors.
"I'm ready," Garza said.
TO MAKE MONEY
The ultimate goal of the basilica's administration is to build revenue sources for future projects, and Garza is confident that his new model is the way to do it.
"The hotel sits empty all week," Garza said. "Since the hotel was built, it has consistently been a drain on the coffers of the basilica."
He wants to see that trend reversed.
The basilica needs to find $80,000 to $90,000 to repair a mosaic on its north side that is losing tiles. A bid for the repair has already been awarded to San Antonio firm The Cavallini Company, but the money is not yet in place.
The facility has also been putting money into landscaping and had to purchase a new $8,000 projector this year. Garza said he plans to buy a greenhouse to keep plants to be used in services and eventually wants to cover the roof of the church in solar panels.
The hotel renovations slightly exceeded the budget because cost estimates did not include furnishings, said Frida Hioe, head of accounting for the basilica. But collections and sales at the basilica were on the rise, jumping about $135,000 in July and August from where they were during the same months in 2010, she said.
The basilica received a $1.25 million loan in March from J.P. Morgan Chase. Repayments will begin this month at $13,500 per month, Hioe said.
That loan was also intended to cover renovations on the 30-room renewal center, which religious groups rent for weekend retreats. Only work on the kitchen has been done there so far, but already the deposit to rent the center has been raised from $100 to $1,000.
"It's going to hurt them if they're going to cancel out on me," Garza said.
The basilica is advertising a job opening for a development director and having discussions with the city of San Juan and its Economic Development Corp. regarding its new efforts, Garza said.
San Juan City Manager J.J. Rodriguez said the city has had several conversations with basilica staff regarding the refurbishments, adding that the city has long been trying to get a hotel open near the shrine.
"Our hope is to retain a lot of the traffic that comes to San Juan," he said. "We do have a close relationship with Father Garza and his staff ... If anything could possibly develop in the economic development realm of things, I look forward to that opportunity."
Elizabeth Findell covers Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, the Mid-Valley and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4428. --
An earlier chapter in this story:
April 20, 2011: Basilica takes on new changes
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