Javier Villalobos settles into the chair of his mayor’s office on the third floor of McAllen’s City Hall.
From there, he has a view of Main Street heading into downtown McAllen. Twenty months passed since downtown and the rest of McAllen had last seen its revenue lifeline of Mexican shoppers stream into their stores. That finally came to an end on Nov. 9, the day the U.S. government allowed Mexican nationals to enter the country over international bridges if they could show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
“We’ve handled it the best we can,” Villalobos said of facing revenue shortfalls during the many months of an overland border closure to Mexican tourists. “We tightened our belts. One thing we found, thankfully, through all of this is that our region is now big enough to be self-sustaining.”
Villalobos, a lawyer, won a razor-thin mayoral race last May. He ran on the theme of “efficient and effective government” and likes what he sees moving forward. Villalobos is bullish on McAllen’s growth in the coming years and pushes back against the notion that a city with long and elongated borders has a limit on open land for expansion.
“People talk about how Pharr and Edinburg are growing so much,” he said of McAllen’s neighboring cities. “I’ve heard talk that our city isn’t really growing, but is it.”
Villalobos points to the 84 commercial and residential subdivision projects that began in the last fiscal year, with 41 now complete. He speaks enthusiastically about McAllen’s growth pushing far north of state Highway 107 with the more modern-day mix of retail and residential developments existing in close proximity to each other. Adding to it are good parks and a high quality of life.
“McAllen is not landlocked,” the mayor said. “Some cities near us are landlocked, but we’re not. McAllen has room and space to grow.”
Villalobos is a Crystal City native who has spent nearly three decades in McAllen.
As an attorney, he has represented many municipalities as legal counsel. That, combined with being a city commissioner, prepared him to be mayor. He seemed at ease in his office, calling up City Hall offices to ask for information. He received early national media attention because Villalobos identifies himself politically as a Republican. There were efforts to tangle him up with the ongoing immigration issues of the border.
Villalobos spoke of deflecting that sort of talk, noting that when it comes to the immigration issue, his only focus as mayor is one of public safety and defending his city against inaccurate depictions.
“I tell people who call me that we don’t have a border crisis,” he said of the national media. “We have a national immigration crisis. Don’t pin it on this area. We’re doing fine.”
The new mayor is also in some ways a continuation of McAllen’s past leaders in advocating a business-friendly climate. He, however, doesn’t fully accept the “run government like a business” mantra that some of his predecessors often cited.
“There’s some enterprise funds like the bridge and water and sewer that you can operate like a business,” Villalobos said. “But other departments like police, fire, parks, the libraries, you don’t run those areas like a business. You’re not getting a return on those investments. What you get is satisfaction and a quality of life.”
Charting A New Path
Villalobos looks far to the north as to where McAllen is heading.
There’s still growth to be had inside of the city’s traditional urban zones, he noted. Outside of those more established areas, he made reference to the sprawling planned residential community of Tres Lagos and the Valley’s Texas A&M University campus located next to it. Both carry McAllen zip codes. The sort of mixed development at Tres Lagos that has neighborhoods within walking distance to schools and parks is the sort of direction Villalobos wants to take McAllen.
“I think in McAllen, we’re used to getting into our cars to go somewhere,” he said. “Younger families and residents like things in closer proximity to where they live. I think that’s where we are lacking. We need more things within walking distance of each other, like retail and housing, and to schools and parks.”
It may be the type of McAllen of the future, the one its new mayor sees going far north – past Monte Cristo Road – to farm-to-market roads that are unknown to local residents for now, but in years ahead may become the new McColl and Nolana roads of a growing city.