The top news stories of 2022 in the Caribou region Part 1
Editor’s Note: The following is the first of two articles highlighting some of the top news stories from 2022. This article highlights events from January through June.
Cary Medical Center kicked off 2022 by welcoming the first baby of the new year. Parents Dustin Lee and Shelby Richardson of Limestone welcomed baby boy Hunter Thomas on Saturday, Jan. 1 at 10:58 a.m., weighing in at 7 pounds and 13 ounces and 20 inches long. The Cary Medical Center Auxiliary presented the proud parents with handmade gift items.
The Caribou City Council swore in returning councilor Jody Smith and first-time councilor John Morrill during its first meeting of the year on Jan. 3. Voters elected both councilors to two-year terms in November. Morrill replaced outgoing councilor Tom Ayer, who served as deputy chair. The council elected Smith mayor for the second year and elected Courtney Boma deputy chair.
Caribou city officials continued working with the Bangor-based company Artifex to design a proposed new police station. Police Chief Michael Gahagan and City Manager Penny Thompson noted that additions to the design will include a basement for the station and updated cost estimates. In November, a non-binding poll indicated that 1,008 voters approved the potential spending of $9.9 million for a new station while 810 said they were not supportive.
The Caribou Planning Board took the first steps in revising the city’s Home Occupations Ordinance, which sets rules and regulations for home-based businesses. Board members approved multiple changes aimed at making the start of these businesses easier for entrepreneurs and voted unanimously to send their proposals to the city council. Their proposed changes included eliminating the public hearing requirement for home occupations that do not require state licensing and expanding the amount of space business owners can use in their home or an accessory building.
Caribou city councilors unanimously approved the expansion of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to include The Par & Grill Restaurant and Guerrette Farms on Carroll Street and businesses part of the nearby Caribou Light Industrial Park. The original Downtown TIF District was created in 2006, with a 30-year limit on tax incentives. TIF Districts allow business owners to receive a portion of their increased assessed property tax value after development is complete, with the city also receiving a portion of the assessed value.
Caribou High School students got involved with Caribou Community School’s Power Hour program to teach French language skills to elementary students. CHS French teacher Jonna Boure recruited three of her advanced students — Chloe Sleeper, Michael Cyr and Michaela Spooner — to teach French using activities such as stories, play acting and cooking ployes, an Acadian French culinary tradition.
Four Aroostook hospitals banded together to bring federal EMS assistance to The County during the hardest months of the omicron variant of COVID-19. FEMA paramedics Daniel Mata and Shanna Maxwell arrived at Cary Medical Center on Jan. 27 and announced plans to assist local hospitals and EMS providers throughout February.
Limestone Community School announced plans to partner with Aroostook County Action Program to hold daylong pre-K starting in fall 2022. Expanding pre-K classroom time, according to school and ACAP officials, will give working parents more options for their children and give families access to other support services that ACAP offers. Limestone was one of 14 Maine school districts to receive funds allocated from a total of $2.7 million in COVID-19 relief funds intended to expand pre-K programming. Limestone’s share of those funds amounts to $87,968, while ACAP will contribute $76,551 for new pre-K staff and other workers.
Amateur radio operators in Caribou came together to form the first municipal-based emergency radio service in Aroostook. Caribou Emergency Amateur Radio Service will assist police, fire and ambulance workers during emergencies, particularly in events where electricity losses become widespread, such as snow or ice storms. Caribou EARS co-founder T.H. Merritt said that the group hopes to bring digital smart technology, known as D-STAR, to Caribou, that would allow operators and emergency personnel to send emails, texts and photos through radio.
The RSU 39 school board voted unanimously to adopt a weighted grading system for Caribou High School starting in the 2022-2023 school year. Unlike unweighted grading, a weighted system takes into account a course’s difficulty and places more points on a student’s grade point average when they complete advanced courses. The new system will give four points to students’ GPAs when they pass advanced placement courses and two points if they pass dual-enrollment or honors courses.
The Maine Women’s Hall of Fame announced that Caribou native and astronaut Jessica Meir would be inducted in March. Meir, a 1995 graduate of Caribou High School, made history in 2019 when she and fellow astronaut Christina Koch completed the first all-female space walk at the International Space Station.
Caribou councilors voted to allow City Manager Penny Thompson to submit a letter of intent to the county in hopes of receiving $150,000 in local American Rescue Plan Act funds. If received, the funds would help Caribou Fire & Ambulance purchase a new chest compression system and video laryngoscope and upgrade the station’s heating, ventilation and sprinkler systems.
After reviewing the city’s current marijuana ordinance and an application for a potential medical marijuana business, the Caribou Planning Board expressed their desire to continue banning retail marijuana shops in Caribou, whether for recreational or medical use. Though officials acknowledged that only the city council can vote to opt into Maine’s retail marijuana statute and could vote to do so in the future, the city’s current position puts Caribou in stark contrast to the nearby Presque Isle. The latter city has seen four medical shops, two recreational stores and one cultivation facility open since passing its marijuana ordinance in 2020.
On Feb. 24, the nonprofit Maine Veterans Homes announced plans to close their nursing homes in Caribou and Machias, resulting in public outrage from legislators and Gov. Janet Mill. The MVH board of directors cited significant operational losses and a shortage of workers as reasons for needing to close the facilities. MVH spokesperson Christine Henson said that the homes have lost a combined $2 million annually for the last several years. The Caribou facility has 24 residential care, 33 nursing unit residents and 76 employees while Machias has 23 residential care residents and 49 employees. MVH officials said that they intended to close the Machias facility on April 15 and Caribou on May 1.
Caribou city councilors remained divided over a potential $9.9 million new police station as they narrowly passed a June referendum question with a 4-3 vote during their Feb. 28 meeting. Councilors Lou Willey, Joan Theriault, John Morrill and Courtney Boma voted yes and continued expressing support for the station while Mark Goughan and Doug Morrell questioned whether the city should seek funding alternatives. Mayor Jody Smith also voted no.
Members of the Aroostook Veterans Advocacy Committee met in person for the first time since COVID-19 on March 1 to plan their next steps in advocating for the Caribou Maine Veterans Home to remain open. Group members cited many concerns about the impending closure, including the long waiting lists for local nursing homes, short-staffed facilities and the possibility of veterans living hundreds of miles away from their families in downstate nursing homes.
The RSU 39 school board voted unanimously to transition from required to optional masking starting Monday, March 7. Superintendent Tim Doak cited low COVID-19 hospitalizations locally and a higher vaccination rate as reasons why he felt comfortable with optional masking. Although several members of the public encouraged the school board to remove mask requirements immediately, the board opted to give parents more time to process the news and make a decision on whether to send their children to school with masks.
The Caribou Planning Board continued revising the city’s Home Occupations Ordinance after receiving comments from local business owner Troy Haney during a recent city council meeting. Haney, the only Caribou resident to speak during the hearing, cited concerns about traffic regulation, signage rules and the number of employees allowed to work at a home occupation.
Thirty-five tenants were displaced after a fire destroyed the Riverside Motor Court apartments at 560 Access Highway in Caribou. The March 11 fire was said to have started in the 19-unit complex’s office before quickly spreading, and was the second fire to occur at the complex within a year.
Maine’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted unanimously to send a bill to help fund Maine Veterans Homes to the full Legislature for consideration. LD 2001, introduced and sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, would provide emergency relief funds to the nonprofit to help keep the Caribou and Machias facilities open. The bill’s introduction came only weeks after MVH officials announced plans to close both homes.
On March 14, Caribou city councilors heard from Spectrum officials on their proposed “fiber-to-the-premises” project. The project would involve installing 74.5 miles of dark fiber to at least 294 unserved homes in the city, and would cost Caribou $857,133, with Spectrum paying the remaining $600,000.
Woodland elected town and school officials during its annual meeting on March 15. Timothy Browning, the only resident on the ballot for selectperson, gained 77 votes. Write-in candidates included Lisa Milliard (16 votes), Peter McCorrison, Carter Moir, Robert Butler, William Sheehan and Thomas Drew, all of whom received one vote. Browning replaced outgoing selectboard member William Barnum. The school board ballot had no registered candidates but Stephanie Molaver garnered the most votes (50) to replace outgoing member Robert Butler, who received 26 votes. Sheehan, Drew, Carl Bondeson and Tony Patterson each received one write-in vote.
The Maine senate unanimously approved LD 1949, which would allow the Caribou Utilities District to start its own broadband division, on March 22. The district plans to construct a single strand of dark fiber from a central location on Sincock Street that will make “state-of-the-art” internet speeds and connections accessible to all residents. CUD General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick said that the CUD will own and operate the dark fiber network and allow several internet providers to serve customers through the network.
The board of trustees for Maine Veterans Homes voted to keep the Caribou and Machias facilities open after five weeks of public outcry from legislators, family members, employees and veterans groups. Their decision came after the passage of LD 2001, which now requires MVH to seek legislative approval before closing any facility and funding to keep those facilities open.
Members of the Caribou Planning Board began the first full review of the city’s land use regulations since 2006. Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison noted that updating the land use tables is important for knowing which businesses the city wants to give more or fewer regulations to, in hopes of spurring greater economic growth.
Caribou city councilors expressed concerns over the proposed $10.4 million expense budget and $1.9 million capital budgets for the city. But despite reductions from department heads, rising fuel, heat and electric costs kept the budgets higher than many hoped. Councilors approved the expense budget 5 to 2 and the capital budget 6 to 1.
To combat cyberbullying in their community, Caribou High School staff invited Chuck Ainsworth, special agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Houlton, to speak with students on the damaging effects that bullying has on youth. Ainsworth’s talk resonated with students and staff due to the recent loss of a 14-year-old student, whose family indicated through his obituary that he had been bullied.
A Caribou man was arrested April 11 after a four-hour standoff with police. George Lacasse, 42, was charged with aggravated reckless conduct and aggravated assault, criminal threatening, creating a police standoff, theft of a firearm, possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and violating conditions of release, according to officials.
Representatives from Maine Veterans Homes, the Maine State Legislature and the governor’s administration began working together on a long-term plan to sustain the Caribou and Machias homes, which were saved from closure by a new legislative bill. As part of that bill, LD 2001, both veterans homes will receive $3.5 million in emergency funds. But the funds, approved by Gov. Janet Mills in March, are only intended to prevent closures for a year or more, leaving many to wonder what long-term plan will be created for the facilities.
Pat Cyr, owner of First Choice Market and Deli and Mike’s Quik Stop and Deli in Caribou, was one of several store owners to speak on the growing trend of Bitcoin ATMs in Aroostook. The machines, located at market and convenience stores throughout The County, allow Bitcoin users to purchase, sell and trade the digital currencies without ever stepping foot in a bank.
Caribou stepped up its efforts to address blighted properties in light of many high-profile buildings in the city, including the former West Gate Villa Mobile Home Park and the Caribou Trailer Park. Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said that many of the homes falling under disrepair have gotten worse due to unresponsive homeowners. But new state legislation that approves land bank formation could help Caribou repair more of those homes as affordable housing options.
Municipal and community leaders in Caribou, Limestone, Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle began efforts to build an interconnected system of walking, biking, ATV and snowmobile trails. The cities and towns joined forces in April to petition the Maine Department of Transportation to study the reuse potential of 33 miles of inactive rails that are part of the Maine Northern Railroad, owned by the DOT. A reuse study, expected to last nine months, will determine whether the rails can be reused for rail service or deemed usable for new trail development.
Caribou City Councilors approved a list of four facade improvement grant winners. Creative Carpentry of Maine received a $7,500 grant for major facade upgrades while Thrive Body Spa, Ruska Coffee Co. and Rossignol Performance and Fitness each received $1,500 for new signage. Councilor John Morrill praised the entrepreneurs for their ideas and noted the importance of helping young business owners invest in Caribou’s economy.
During the April 25 city council meeting, Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison updated councilors on the progress of blighted building investigations. Three dangerous buildings formerly located on Main Street and Patten Street were recently demolished after the owners failed to pay back taxes, he said. Councilors unanimously voted to allow Murchison to proceed with demolition plans for a dangerous building located at 37 Home Farm Road.
In their first public budget meeting, RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) officials projected at least a 5 percent increase in the 2022 budget, which would lead to an overall mill rate increase of .41 mills. The projected total budget was $20,813,971, an increase of $999,647 from last year’s budget of $19,814,324. Officials attributed much of the increases to rising fuel oil, bus fuel and electricity costs.
The Caribou High School Hall of Fame announced its alumni inductees for 2022: Dr. Richard Winslow, Class of 1959; Dr. Mark Randolph, Class of 1975; Carl Randolph, Class of 1990; Emily Smith, Class of 1995; Benjamin L. Wakana, Class of 2005; and Dr. Caleb Swanberg; Class of 2007.
Woodland resident and Caribou Technology Center student Jesse Taggett reflected on his journey in welding as he prepared to represent Aroostook at the SkillsUSA national championships in Atlanta, Georgia. Taggett has been welding with his father, NMCC instructor Rick Taggett, since he was 10 years old and received his first national certification at age 12.
The RSU 39 school board approved the proposed 2022 budget during its May 4 meeting. The $20,826,248 budget represented a .1 percent increase over the initially predicted $20,813,971 budget and a 5.1 percent increase over the 2021 budget of $19,814,324. School board members approved staffing and program reductions that they attributed to keeping the budget and mill rate as low as possible for taxpayers.
Caribou councilors expressed interest in potentially amending the city’s marijuana ordinance to allow entrepreneur Caleb Trombley to start his for-profit medical marijuana caregiver store, Wicked Good Farmacy. The city’s ordinance specified that only nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities could operate in Caribou.
Caribou councilors voted 5 to 1 to close city offices for Juneteenth, a newly created state and federal holiday, and to change the name Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in the city’s ordinance. The council’s vote made Caribou the first municipality in Aroostook to designate Juneteenth a local holiday. Juneteenth, a combination of “June” and “nineteenth” honors June 19, 1865, the day that African American slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. During their May 9 meeting, councilors also unanimously passed the city’s revised Home Occupations Ordinance.
Heather Anderson, an eighth grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Caribou Community School, was named Aroostook County Teacher of the Year by the Maine Department of Education. The Maine DOE’s Teacher of the Year program recognizes teachers in all 16 of Maine’s counties, making them eligible for the Maine Teacher of the Year designation. Anderson began teaching at CCS in fall 2021 after serving as a teacher and principal at Connor Consolidated School. She is the second Caribou teacher in three years to be named Aroostook Teacher of the Year. Her colleague Kim Barnes received the honor in 2019.
More than 70 residents and businesses took part in Caribou’s annual city-wide yard sale May 13 to 15. Shoppers were eager to stop by the homes of neighbors and other area residents, looking for great deals.
The Aroostook River Spring Runoff Canoe & Kayak Race was held May 14 in Caribou, beginning at the Lower Lyndon boat launch and ending at Forbes Pit. The 6.2-mile race featured 19 boats and 28 paddlers, many of whom were anxious to enjoy the scenic views of the Aroostook River. Organizers hoped that the 2nd annual revived canoe/kayak race would help spur interest in redeveloping Caribou’s riverfront region.
In a proposed ordinance amendment, Caribou city officials looked to formally define who should be responsible for clearing snow from the city’s fire hydrants during winter. Historically, that task fell to the Caribou Public Works department but recent staff shortages led to uncleaned hydrants during emergencies. The ordinance proposed that the Caribou Utilities District, who charges the city $325,000 annually for use of the hydrants, be responsible for removing snow from all 153 hydrants.
The Caribou City Council once again began discussing the future of the Nylander Museum during their May 23 meeting. Though they did not formally vote, councilors agreed to explore the possibility of reestablishing a working volunteer board for the museum. The board would assist library and museum director Peter Baldwin with planning and marketing future events to the community.
Caribou and Stockholm residents passed all articles pertaining to RSU 39’s $20.8 million budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Their vote allowed the budget to be included as part of the June 14 referendum ballot.
Twenty-five students graduated from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone May 28. Senior Melanie Lau of Buxton reflected on how she has grown personally since coming to the school her freshman year. Keynote speaker Miles Sweet, an MSSM Class of 1997 graduate, encouraged graduates to remain open to new and unexpected opportunities in their future careers.
For the first time in three years, Caribou held its Memorial Day parade. Hundreds of community members gathered to cheer on members of veterans organizations, Little League team members, pageant queens, police officers and firefighters. The parade was followed by a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Park on Main Street, which honored veterans who have died and soldiers who have given their lives in service to their country.
The city of Caribou kicked off its annual Thursdays on Sweden Street series June 2. More than 20 business and community vendors sold handmade items and food and promoted services. Local rock band No Pressure entertained the crowd of hundreds as they chatted with friends and checked out the vendors. City officials noted that the warm weather and high turnout led to vendors having one of their best nights in the history of Thursdays on Sweden.
Caribou firefighters remembered the life of honorary firefighter David Brissette, who died May 14. Brissette, who had Williams Syndrome, was known for his friendly, social personality and his fascination with firefighting, which began at an early age. Brissette developed close friendships with Caribou firefighters, who considered him one of their own and held a procession and funeral service in his honor.
The U.S. Air Force Civil Engineering Center announced that investigations into PFAS chemicals at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, which began in 2015, will continue into summer and fall 2022. Initial investigations found low levels of firefighting foam AFFF in areas near a former runway but not in private or public drinking wells. Further investigations, partly on land owned by Loring Development Authority, will determine if waterways, soils and sediment have been greatly affected and how AFFF can be removed in the coming years.
Eighty-eight students graduated from Caribou High School on June 5, receiving words of wisdom from classmates and administrators. Valedictorian Chloe Sleeper, inspired by one of her favorite novels, encouraged the Class of 2022 to not focus on impossible standards of perfection and instead work toward their own versions of happiness. Salutatorian Alden Wilcox reflected on both humorous and more serious moments of high school, including his own procrastination habits, and encouraged his fellow graduates to take risks throughout their lives.
RSU 39 opted to eliminate its school resource officer for at least the coming school year to spend more of its budget on addressing student mental health. Superintendent Tim Doak noted the significant rise in social media bullying, depression and anxiety among students as reasons why the district chose to hire a third social worker at Caribou Community School and a full-time assistant principal at Caribou High School. He and Police Chief Michael Gahagan also discussed ways to help more students interact positively with officers, including through the “Lunch with a Caribou Police Officer” program.
Caribou became one of many regions of Aroostook that saw a significant rise in solar array installations in 2022. Municipalities spoke of positive relationships with developers so far but expected that in the future they might need to better educate the community on how to properly invest in solar energy credits.
Twenty-three students graduated from Fort Fairfield High School June 12. Salutatorian Lindsey White and valedictorian Kira Rogers encouraged their fellow students to reflect on life lessons learned in Fort Fairfield and rely on their individual strengths as they begin their next chapters. Outgoing school principal Jamie Selfridge told students that their greatest attribute as leaders will be their ability to listen to others.
City councilors in Caribou unanimously struck down a proposed ordinance that would have deemed the Caribou Utilities District responsible for cleaning all 153 fire hydrants during the winter. Though many councilors supported the ordinance, they changed their minds after learning that the city might not be legally able to enforce the CUD to complete the task.
Caribou residents approved multiple city measures during the referendum election June 14, including the $10 million design and construction of a new police station and the $20.8 million RSU 39 school budget. City Clerk Danielle Brissette noted that 1,003 out of 5,638 registered voters came to vote on Election Day.
Limestone town residents took matters into their own hands when they reduced many expenses that they deemed too high for the town’s proposed budget. During a meeting that took two evenings, local voters were especially critical of the Limestone Community School budget, which they rejected and sent back to the school board for further review. Interim Police Chief Jim Butler reduced his proposed police department budget, hoping for a compromise that would still allow for the hiring of new officers.
The Midsommar festival returned to New Sweden June 17-19, offering a variety of traditional Swedish celebrations for local families and visitors. The New Sweden Little Folk Dancers performed Swedish songs while dancing around the 30-foot maypole that many of them helped decorate with flowers. Midsommar traditions trace back to the first group of Swedish settlers who arrived in what became New Sweden in 1870.
Caribou received a $10,000 Enterprise Marketing Grant from the Maine Office of Tourism. City officials said that they will use the funds to launch a more aggressive online marketing campaign to attract tourists to Caribou.
Loring Development Authority received $400,000 from Maine’s supplemental budget to begin a marketing campaign to attract larger employers to the former Loring Air Force Base. The two-year campaign will help LDA increase its social media presence and upgrade its website in the wake of losing hundreds of jobs after the departure of large employers like Sitel and the Maine Military Authority.
Jesse Taggett, 17, of Woodland became the first Aroostook student to rank among the top welders at the SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Taggett placed third among 50 student welders.
Due to declining membership, the Veterans Memorial Park Association transferred ownership of Caribou’s Veterans Memorial Park to the city. After a unanimous vote from city councilors, the Parks and Recreation department became responsible for maintenance of the park, which features a Civil War monument and other tributes to veterans and fallen soldiers.
Caribou city manager Penny Thompson announced that mill rate calculations would not be ready until late July. With the city’s tax assessing office short staffed, the city opted to hire Steven Joseph Salley of Pittsfield to work part time as a real-estate tax assessor for the 2022 tax season. Salley told councilors that he was still processing deed transfers, exemptions and other tax records and would complete his work in July.