HARLINGEN — After more than three decades with Texas State Technical College, executive vice president Javier De Leon will take on a new challenge in January as chief executive officer and president of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce.

De Leon was hired to replace Chris Gonzalez, who resigned to take a position with the local staffing firm, SOG International.

De Leon, 58, worked at TSTC for 33 years, eventually rising to become executive vice president for governmental affairs, a position where he interacted with local, state and national officials.

“I think among our advantages is we’re in the middle, the middle of the Rio Grande Valley,” De Leon said Thursday. “We’re in an area where the position where we’re at is just fantastic. The people that are living in Harlingen, we have a history in the way we think, and how we operate. We have good people.”

“We’ve always had generational individuals that have passed the baton that allows us to keep the mindset that Harlingen is just a beautiful place to visit, a beautiful place to live and it’s a beautiful place to retire,” he said.

For years city leaders have extolled Harlingen as being the next big thing in the Valley, due in large part to its central location, interstate connections and Valley International Airport.

But so far the city has not turned that corner.

Population estimates delivered this month by the Texas Demographic Center show Harlingen with 69,064 residents, a 6.5 percent gain over the 2010 Census numbers, but lagging behind other cities in Hidalgo County.

Edinburg, for example, has an estimated population as of January of this year of 101,472, a 36.1 percent increase over 2010. Mission has 86,474 residents, an increase of 12.1 percent, and Pharr is at 71,671, an increase of 16.0 percent.

“We want to make sure we grow the right way,” De Leon said in response to those numbers. “When someone says ‘what does that mean, growing in the right way?’”

“We want to make sure that as we’re growing, we’re bringing business and industry that is not just at minimum wage,” he added. “We want to try to bring business and industry that is above minimum wage, so people can live and get out of either poverty or out of living paycheck to paycheck.”

De Leon says the right kind of growth, one that brings jobs and opportunities without sacrificing quality of life, will go a long way toward keeping younger people here in the Valley.

“We see a lot of talent take off, they go to San Antonio, they go to Austin and Houston and Dallas, and God bless them, there’s nothing wrong with that.” De Leon said. “But we need to make sure that before they even think about going somewhere else, they look deep and hard down here in the Rio Grande Valley, and more importantly in Harlingen.”

“We need to keep our talent here, we need to keep our youth here, because that’s what’s going to continue to allow us to grow, that new generation,” he said.

De Leon noted that the retail environment in Harlingen, like the rest of the country, has been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

He issued a call for a partnership between local businesses and their customers to restore confidence to shop, eat and gather.

“The environment right now is cautious, with uncertainty and nervousness,” De Leon said. “It has nothing to do with politics, and I’ll take politics totally out of there.”

“But we just need to continue to provide as much confidence and put safety measures in place so that business and industry can go back to normal,” he added. “And more importantly, do it in a way that the consumer, the customer, feels that wherever they’re going is safe.”

De Leon, a Harlingen native, also has served on the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District’s board of trustees since 2005.

For his part, De Leon concedes that leaving TSTC after more than three decades was not an easy decision.

“You better believe it,” he answered. “I’ve been at TSTC for 33 years. I’ve grown from the ranks to where I’m at now, which is the executive vice president for governmental affairs, and I work with legislators.”

“I told the executive board at the Chamber that this was no easy decision because I’ve been blessed to have a dream job with the college. If you’re blessed to have a dream job once in your life, you’re super lucky. I’ve been blessed to have it twice, with TSTC and now with the Chamber,” he said.