People Profiles: Glen Speer, Creator of Mongoose Junction

Glen Spear addresses the community after Hurricane Irma hit. Image credit: Yelena Rogers
Glen Speer addresses the community after Hurricane Irma hit.

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. 

24 thoughts on “People Profiles: Glen Speer, Creator of Mongoose Junction”

  1. This article made me ball my eyes out. I love St. John so much and it saddens me to see what happened and what could happen in the future.

  2. How great to have some one who’s been there … and done that. Mongoose Junction, to me, is so much more than a commercial venue. It’s such a beautiful creative space. And apparently quite sturdy!

  3. I think it’s really interesting that After Hurricane Marilyn, the campgrounds helped bring tourists back. With the fate of Caneel up in the air, the need to bring back the Cinnamon Bay campgrounds is even more urgent

  4. Wasn’t there talk, before the hurricanes, about an extension of Mongoose? Going up where the lumberyard is/was? Hotel there as well? Thought it was somehow connected to Mongoose. He involved in that?

  5. This is why we love St John. The people. The land. The community.
    We look forward to building our home and joining this island family.
    Well written, thank you for this.

  6. I have followed news of St John every day since the hurricane and this article warmed my heart. My father worked at Caneel Bay as the Controller for their first two years in business in the 1950’s and I grew up delighted by the stories he told. My husband and I visit each year and I have been devastated with the Caneel Bay situation. I would love to be more vocal and wonder how? I want Caneel to be operated by someone who loves the island and makes decisions because they are the right thing to do for the guests, the employees and the island. How can someone on the mainland get involved?

  7. Hi Chelsea—great article!! And you’re right—now is the time to continue for all of us—St Johnians and statesiders who love the island—to continue to pull together. ‘Cause together, “we say we can when they say we cant’.” See you soon! Please say hi to Rich (yours) and Rich (your Dad!) for us!

    Til we see you again–

    Steve and Heidi

  8. Nice article, Chelsea! Glen is THE visionary of St John…I’ve known him for years & would LOVE to see him as head of a Planning Commission for our beloved island!

    • And Glen would follow the letter of the law and interpret the codes correctly. Unfortunately, he would not be able to go back and tear down the buildings that were illegally constructed. Makes you wonder how CO’s were issued.

      Mr. Glen Speer is probably one of the most decent people you can meet on St. John. Respects the island, it’s people, it’s heritage and it’s future.

  9. I love the history in this story, especially how villas rose to prominence. I always wondered about that.

    The crazy thing about these latest hurricanes is they have actually increased my motivation to move to STJ. That’s still not in the cards just yet, so I have to settle for my tenth visit this November. See you then!

  10. Great story Chelsea! All of us who live on and love St. John are better off personally and as a community thanks to Glenn!

  11. Very nice article and thank you for taking the time to right it. I first came to St. John in 1981 and rented the downstairs apartment in the home of Aase Pedersen. In the years that followed, mostly stayed at the homes managed by Mary-Phyliss Noguiera along with her son and daughter. Renting cars from Mr.Penn, who would always stop and talk to me around town, asking about how my sons were doing. And the owner of the Lime Inn (Richard) who always seemed to remember me in my yearly visits with a “Welcome back!” Wonderful people who helped make the visit to St. John….always, always…..special.

  12. A beautifully written article about a very special person – one who has worked on behalf of so many who love St. John. While I wish I could be a resident of STJ, we do try to frequent the beloved island as often as possible. As visitors who love STJ because of the people, culture and community, we will do what we can to help during this transition and advocate for the people of STJ to have a say in the direction of the island. Thank you, Glen for your inspiration and commitment to one of the most beautiful and special places on earth!

  13. Glenn Speer has been, and continues to be, the guiding voice for St.John, and we are so very fortunate for that! I believe, the photo of him is from the day after Hurricane Irma, when Glenn was encouraging all of us on St. John to pull together. Chelsea, your story is wonderful, but you forgot to mention that Glenn is also the architect of the Marketplace. Both places give us all high standards to design and build to, and that is why the architecture on St. John is so unique. We are truly blessed that Glen chose St. John!

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