Critics say Caribou is not investing enough in economic development

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CARIBOU, Maine — The absence of a director of economic development for the past decade hasn’t stopped Caribou leaders and entrepreneurs from trying to solve the town’s biggest economic dilemma: attracting and retaining businesses. But critics say their efforts are not enough.

Like other areas of Aroostook, Caribou has struggled to grow its population and trade base since the 1990s when Loring Air Force Base in Limestone closed. Unlike neighboring Près Isle, which many regard as the county’s commercial and service center, Caribou does not benefit from a municipally funded industrial council or a full-time director of economic development. Since 2012, leaders have relied more on collaborations between city employees and local business outreach groups.

This approach remains controversial as many residents and community leaders believe the city has not invested enough in its own growth. Others say there needs to be a collaborative approach in a world where long-term employees are harder to find.

Caribou has had some small successes in recent years, as evidenced by the growing number of entrepreneurs setting up shop and taking advantage of city-run financial assistance programs. Tourism is also growing, especially in the winter with snowmobiling and other outdoor recreation, leading to increased numbers of visitors to existing restaurants and shops.

City Manager Penny Thompson attributes this success to the number of city employees who play a role in sustaining economic development, even when it means going beyond their normal duties.

For example, the city’s Superintendent of Parks and Recreation also maintains local snowmobile trails and maintains contact with frequent visitors and those in the tourism industry.

Thompson spends 25% of her week pursuing business initiatives, as her main job is overseeing operations and liaising between department heads and the city council, making her the go-to person for development economic.

That’s a problem, said Caribou Planning Board member Dave Corriveau. As major industries left the area surrounding the old Limestone base just outside the city limits, they also passed through Caribou. Worse still, Caribou has no one who can devote their full time to pursuing these industries, he said.

“I wish we had 15 Gary Marquesas and 15 Manager Thompsons who were all thinking the same playbook. But they wear 15 different hats and work hard,” Corriveau said.[Because of that] I think we have missed opportunities to broaden our tax base. We need someone who can get our idea sticky notes off the wall and chase those ideas away”

Corriveau is one of the members of the planning board who earlier this year suggested to the committee that a director of economic development position be offered to city councillors.

An ideal director would collaborate with city officials on ideas, but have the time and resources for large-scale business outreach, he said. The person would also have a business background and be passionate about marketing Caribou to a wider range of potential employers.

City councilors have identified economic development as a major objective, but this year’s tight budget and uncertain tax rate has left a new director off the table.

The lack of movement in the position has its roots in personnel changes dating back to the years following the Great Recession, said code enforcement officer Ken Murchison.

In 2000, Caribou hired its first director of community development in several years, who sought state and federal funding for infrastructure related to economic growth, including sidewalk repairs, recreation, and public housing improvements. The city has contributed millions to respond to downtown revitalization, helping industrial businesses grow and repairing roads for more than a decade.

Cars line many parking spaces in front of businesses on Sweden Street in Caribou. Without a full-time director of economic development, Caribou struggles to attract businesses, including those that might want to locate on Sweden Street downtown. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Republican Aroostook

Things changed when the city’s longtime director of community development fell ill and left in the mid-2000s, and her replacement didn’t stay long.

A new city manager came on board in 2012, and Caribou consolidated community and economic development duties into the new position of assistant city manager, saving money by not having two separate positions.

The deputy position was eliminated when the person resigned, making City Manager Caribou the unofficial Director of Economic Development.

“I don’t think anyone ever expected things to turn out this way. This is how the city has changed over time,” said Murchison, who is also a former city councilman.

These decisions leave today’s municipal leaders convinced that a fully collaborative approach to economic development is essential, at least for now.

In addition to its own staff, the city also maintains and supports the nine-member Caribou Economic Growth Council, which meets monthly and includes professionals from the medical, banking and insurance, and utility district.

The council provides loans that cover costs that a bank loan cannot, including starting a business, renovations and expansions. In the past decade alone, it has provided 53 loans to local businesses, investing $3.5 million in Caribou’s economy.

There is also the Business Investment Group, a nonprofit separate from the city but whose members include Murchison and Corriveau. Composed mostly of local entrepreneurs, the group was formed in 2012 and raises funds in the hope of supporting economic growth.

More recently, the six-member group used funds from the land they sold to provide a short-term, low-interest loan to Phoenix Direct Care, the only direct primary care clinic north of Bangor. It opened on Sweden Street in 2018 and employs six people.

Thompson knows the city’s approach to economic development will yield substantial results more gradually than in cities with a full-time manager. But without the passionate organizing of city officials and business leaders, Caribou may never have gained momentum, she said.

“We know that Caribou will never be Almost Isle, but we’d rather do our best to be Caribou,” Thompson said. “Our citizens are very engaged and they want their neighbors to succeed. I don’t know of any other city that has such grassroots involvement.

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