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Economic development advocates want to breathe life back into Caribou’s riverfront

CARIBOU, Maine — A group of town staff and city residents hoping to redevelop Caribou’s river-front district are lobbying to become an official committee of the city of Caribou.

Once a hub of the city’s potato industry, the district near the Aroostook River has slowly become an underutilized industrial zone anchored by a railroad that hasn’t run regularly for nearly a decade. 

The group behind the proposed Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee is hoping to develop new parks and trails; attract small businesses and restaurants to the area; and want official committee status to start pursuing long-term solutions including a master plan.

“If you look across the state of Maine and even here in the County, people are celebrating their riverfront and we’re not,” Code Enforcement Officer and committee member Ken Murchison said. “I’m all about, how do we bring economic development to the community? So, we can take what is truly an asset, and an under-used asset, and focus our attention on that.”

The riverfront district is an unofficial, five mile stretch of the city which runs alongside the Aroostook River from the Dow Siding Road, up Route 1 and onto Limestone Street. The railroad bed and much of the surrounding property is currently owned by the Maine Department of Transportation, Murchison said.

Since the group first came together as an ad hoc committee at the end of September, it has begun talks with the DOT, and hopes to acquire the railroad-adjacent land. It has also surveyed the community for ideas on how to develop the area.

So far, that survey has about 90 respondents, Murchison said. The group has been administering the questionnaire at Thursdays on Sweden Street and other town events. It’s also available at the library. 

“[Development is] widely supported,” Murchison said. “There seems to be a lot of interest in a cafe or small restaurant, maybe a brew pub situation. There’s lots of interest in pedestrian trails and park space, affordable housing applications.”

In his role as code enforcement officer, Murchison said he’s heard private interest in developing that land too and some people have begun asking what it would take to start restaurants or other businesses in the riverfront area. 

Earlier this summer, Troy Haney got approval from the city council to start a seasonal campground on Limestone Street on property that was once an auto salvage yard. Rehabbing the riverfront area was one of his main motivations for starting the project.

Murchison first approached the council with an idea of becoming an official committee of Caribou at the end of July, and then returned on Aug. 9 with a formal request for an ordinance incorporating the group into city government. 

If the councilors decide to draft an ordinance, they must introduce it and hold a public hearing on the ordinance before enacting it — which will require action at at least two or three of the upcoming bi-weekly meetings. If all goes well, Murchison hopes the committee could be official by mid-September.

Right now, the group is nine members strong: Murchison, Events and Marketing Director Christina Kane Gibson, Parks and Recreation superintendent Gary Marquis, planning board chair and vice chair Daniel Bagley as well as Christine Soloman, Mark Draper, Jay Kamm, Jan Murchison and Frank McElwain.

The proposed Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee would include five members of the public to serve three year terms, and five ex-officio members: a city councilor, three city staff members and the city manager — all appointed by the city council.

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