By Chelsea Baranowski
I sat thinking about this interview for days afterwards, and I am still thinking about it two months after the fact. Glen Speer has the kind of calm energy and wisdom you could spend a lot of time let marinate in your head. His passion for the well-being of St. John and its residents is one that needs to be heard. He is the kind of humble most people aspire to be, and that’s what makes his adventurous and hard-working side that much more compelling. A builder by trade, a property manager and landlord by title, and a green thumb, jack-of-all-trades, St. John protectionist, historian, beautifier, Glen built and runs the staple that is Mongoose Junction.
The story of St. John and Glen Spear begins in 1969 when he jumped the pond from California. The “sleepy” island of St. John was a welcome change, Glen recalls doing business during that time was friendly and jovial and there was enough work to go around, a stark contrast from the market he had left. On the island “houses were being built, there were job opportunities for all people, and the cost of living was low” he said. Not only were things booming economically, “the National Park was evolving, the beauty of the island was everywhere, and it was seemingly to me, an exotic place.”
In 1978, Glen had been building on powerless job sites long enough to have the opportunity to buy the property for, and build from scratch, Mongoose Junction. After 10 years as a contractor, he took on his biggest project. It wasn’t an easy feat, but Glen pulled the money together and built, along with the help of an amazing crew, the landmark of beauty, precision, and hard work, that is Mongoose Junction. “There was real community (at that time). Everyone helped each other.”
Glen sees his years on St. John in episodes, broken up by the major hurricanes that greatly damaged St. John, its infrastructure and economy. Each storm, according to Glen, had in common severe damage, a rigorous recovery process, a post-disaster period, a graduation to a new stage, and most importantly, the affirmation of resounding spirit of the people of St. John.
On September 17, 1989, Hurricane Hugo threw houses from hills, ripped roofs to shreds, and ‘mashed up’ the Virgin Islands. Caneel and Virgin Grande, now the Westin, remained closed until power and phone lines were restored, and the visitors were few. The dynamics changed. It seemed people had to work harder for the same amount of money and competition became part of the mix. Still, people remained who were willing to do the hard work and produce good energy in the community. It became a fruitful period.
On September 15, 1995, Hurricane Marilyn made landfall and sat over St. John for two full days. “People weren’t prepared and damage was immense.” The economic hardship to follow was great. “Corporations closed, markets fell apart, and we flat lined for three years,” Glen said. While the major hotels abandoned ship, including Caneel, the campgrounds at Maho and Cinnamon continued operations, villa rentals expanded, and that growth, again, caused a great shift. St. John had successfully diversified its economy and created a great financial expansion.
“If there is a characteristic about St. John, it’s that we all work together and figure out solutions…When we wake up, there is a new problem to solve. That’s what keeps us all pretty healthy and reliant on the people around us.” This expansion continued for over 20 years. The corporations came back, businesses grew hugely in number, as did the popularity of St. John.
Bam, September 6, 2017 – Hurricane Irma hits and then on September 19, 2017, Maria hits, and it’s devastation overload. “Same thing that happened in Hugo and Marilyn, St. John had to be self-reliant.” And once again, the corporations left, but not Glen…
“I was out there with my crew two days after the storm, doing what we could.” You can feel the emotion as Glen discusses the volunteers and community members after the storms, “climbing out from under the debris to make St. John a better place.” And while it is the nature of the island to revert back to “normal,” we currently sit at this transitionary time in which real change can happen, where real growth has previously occurred. Leaves are growing back new, and this is an opportunity for the next generation to take control of the future of our island and make this next episode of St. John community-minded, environmentally conscious, and congruent with St. John values.
Glen currently mourns that so many residents have left, that we have lost some of what makes us St. John. And rightfully so, with the help of the people who “really love St. John,” we have gotten through this, but where do we stand if we continue to lose our population and diversity? Where do we stand if a hotel at Caneel opens that does not take into account the community’s wants, needs and ideas and is run by an uncaring corporation? And where do we stand if the community does not have a place to be a community?
This is the time. This is the time to be bold, to be strong, to understand what we have been through and where we can go, and to fight for a National Park that works for us, proper facilities to educate our children, proper spaces to facilitate meetings as a community, and to bring in companies that care about St. John.
“It’s depressing to think St. John has outgrown you,” he tells me, but that is absolutely not the case. Glen continues to work hard and teach us what it means to be St. Johnian. No doubt, you will see him around Mongoose Junction, in work boots, dawning a smile, helping the Tap Room guys with their new bar, weeding his incredible garden with his wife, Radha, or being active at a town meeting. Glen’s passion carries on in his work. We connected over my family, his tenants and his employees, his dreams for Mongoose, and St. John as a whole. We should consider ourselves lucky that this man chose St. John 49 years ago. We’re better for it.
Chelsea Baranowski is a lifelong St .John resident. She owns the popular Lime Inn restaurant in Cruz Bay with her husband Richard. The couple has two sons.