CARIBOU, Maine — Fifty years after urban renewal gutted downtown Caribou and a controversial mall was built, city leaders are trying to figure out how to save this once-popular neighborhood.
Between 1960 and 1970, Caribou’s population grew from 12,464 to just over 10,419, echoing an Aroostook County-wide trend of more young people moving to urban areas. So city officials proposed a $2 million urban renewal project, mostly funded by federal dollars, that lasted until the 1970s.
The city demolished downtown wooden buildings that were destroyed and susceptible to fire as part of this. In Caribou’s most famous business district, Sweden Street, the city created four new modern brick buildings that became the Downtown Mall. But it didn’t take off as a mall. Today, it primarily houses nonprofit, government, and medical offices.
The Downtown Mall is another example of what happened to Maine cities during the urban renewal movement in the 1960s and 1970s – when historic buildings like Bangor City Hall and Union Station in Portland were razed – and now Caribou leaders are relying on contractors to rebuild the neighborhood.
When the mall was built, the Boston-based architects chose not to renovate the old brick buildings on Sweden Street or incorporate them into the Downtown Mall. Many business owners and residents thought the more urban design would take away from Caribou’s small-town feel.
Those decisions still upset lifelong residents, including retired city councilor and insurance agent Joan Theriault.
“I was not opposed to urban renewal. There were buildings that needed to be demolished,” Theriault said. “But they tried to make downtown look more like Boston. The [mall] the buildings here today have no character.
In Thériault’s youth, Sweden Street was considered the business center of Caribou. There were clothing stores, restaurants, banks, pharmacies and business offices. Daily traffic was constant as people drove to and from work or spent the day running errands. Teenagers hung out there on weekends, sitting on benches and watching cars go by.
Clockwise, from left: Caribou Councilor Joan Theriault recalls the glory days of Sweden Street as she strolls through this section of downtown; Cars line up outside The Cubby, a non-profit store that is one of the few remaining retail stores on Sweden Street in Caribou; Theriault stands near part of the downtown Caribou shopping center where she worked as an insurance agent before this building was built. Thériault is one of many older Caribou residents who disliked the controversial mall when it was built in the 70s.
But few retail and restaurant owners returned when the Downtown Mall was completed. Those that did found it difficult to attract customers who didn’t like the new downtown look and feel.
The section of Sweden Street that has remained intact was still thriving in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were several clothing stores, as well as businesses selling furniture and jewelry and the original post office of the town. Even people who didn’t like the Downtown Mall accepted it as more offices filled the spaces.
But no one predicted the large-scale decline that downtown Caribou would experience beginning in the 1990s.
When Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, the population of nearby Limestone had fallen to less than 10,000 and Caribou’s to just over 9,400. Thousands more left during that decade. , taking away large numbers of people who had frequented downtown Caribou.
“I think the Downtown Mall had some impact on downtown, but the base closure really had a domino effect, especially on retail,” Theriault said.
Previously, the most popular clothing stores in Caribou were JCPenney, FW Woolworth, LS Hall and JJ Newberry. But these businesses and many others quickly closed after the base was closed. JCPenney moved to the Aroostook Shopping Center in Près Isle, which opened in 1993.
Much like today’s indoor shopping malls, the Sweden Street complex found itself more likely to house offices, non-profits, and specialty businesses like child care centers than retail stores. Only one store – Brambleberry Market – exists in the Downtown Mall. The non-profit store The Cubby is the only place to buy clothes on Sweden Street or anywhere in downtown Caribou.
But Caribou leaders have begun to broaden their ideas about what defines downtown in order to attract new business.
In the years following Loring’s departure, the city’s zoning codes gradually expanded to include Bennett Drive, a major business district near Highway 1; Water, High and most of Main Street and part of the Access Highway, which connects Caribou and Limestone. Businesses on these streets benefit from a tax incentive program and other grant opportunities specifically for the downtown area.
Recently opened downtown businesses include a gym on Bennett Drive and a carpentry shop on Water Street, both of which received grants for facade improvements. A new bowling alley and restaurant will open on Access Highway later this year.
Caribou leaders are also investing more in Sweden Street, adding new LED lights and trees and hosting annual events in the area.
In 2013, Caribou organized its first Thursdays on the Sweden Street festival. This event has grown into a bi-weekly summer series that attracts hundreds of visitors and has given more exposure to home artisans and small businesses.
Recent entrepreneurs have credited Caribou’s business-friendly attitude and policies as reasons they have invested in the downtown area.
Seasoned Aroostook entrepreneur Lisa Wark finds a supportive spot on Herschel Street near the Sweden Street entrance.
“Thursdays in Sweden are good for bringing people into town, so that was a big draw for me,” Wark said of his store location. “[Caribou is] a very friendly and supportive business community.
Wark moved her stained glass shop, Glass With Class, from Almost Isle to Caribou this summer. Thanks to a loan program from the city, she owns her building, which once housed a thrift store.
Newcomers to Aroostook County, Tamara and Lance Lovewell are renovating an old clothing store on Sweden Street into a cafe they will call Ruska Coffee Co. The Washington state natives moved their family to Caribou the last year and quickly saw the need for coffee and food in a section of Sweden Street further from the city center.
This is good news for a neighborhood that had the popular Reno’s Family Restaurant across the street which closed in 2020 shortly after the pandemic lockdown.
The Lovewells wanted to bring a fresher, more upbeat feel to this part of the street and give the community a place to socialize, Tamara Lovewell said.
City leaders hope these businesses will bring others to the area.
“We’re seeing a trend toward smaller, niche businesses and personal services instead of big box stores,” said Ken Murchison, the city’s code enforcement officer. “It’s encouraging to see people coming back downtown.