Retiring code enforcement officer remains committed to serving Caribou

11 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Ken Murchison may be stepping down as a city employee, but the Caribou native plans to continue serving his community for years to come.

Murchison’s final day as Caribou’s code enforcement officer and zoning administrator was May 25. Though he filled those roles for the past five years, Murchison’s work in Caribou spans several decades.

Like others of his generation, Murchison, 62, has seen the city lose and gain businesses and residents and bounce back from economic downturns.

The Caribou of Murchison’s childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s was one on the cusp of changes. Downtown had always been filled with department stores and other primarily local businesses. The circular design that navigates traffic in and around Sweden Street did not exist.

“Folks my age can remember from Sweden and High streets intersected with a traffic light downtown and the Christmas lights that were strung across the streets,” Murchison said, while still at work in his city office.

That was before the Urban Renewal era kicked off, a period in the 1970s and 1980s when modern brick buildings replaced older wooden structures on Sweden Street. The area became known as the Downtown Mall and often was controversial among older generations that disliked the more urban look and feel.

Murchison mainly recalls excitement about Caribou getting a “mall,” which was all the rage back then.

“I was probably 9 or 10 years old during Urban Renewal. As kids, we would ride our bikes there and watch the wrecking balls swing,” Murchison said. “We saw things change a little at a time.”

After graduating from Caribou High School in 1979, Murchison took university courses in Augusta before returning to The County and earning his drafting technology degree from Northern Maine Community College. He and wife Jan, now married 37 years, lived in Presque Isle and Washburn in the early years of starting a family.

By the time the Murchison family moved to Caribou in 1999, the city had seen an exodus of residents and downtown businesses after Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base closed. Murchison, by then a longtime employee of Northern Maine Development Commission, realized he wanted to play a role in shaping Caribou’s future.

In 2001, Murchison became a member of the Caribou Planning Board. One year later, he was elected to the city council.

“I’ve always been interested in government, so I guess my career [with the city] happened before I was a city employee,” Murchison said.

Murchison served on city council from 2002 to 2013. He was mayor for three of those years, including in 2009, when Caribou celebrated its sesquicentennial.

During his tenure, Murchison saw the building of Caribou’s newest Wellness & Recreation Center on Bennett Drive and construction of the “Caribou Connector,” a section of highway meant to divert trailer trucks and heavier traffic from downtown.

He also saw the beginnings of Caribou’s increased fight against blighted properties when the former Bird’s Eye food processing plant was demolished. Blight became an issue Murchison would tackle head on as code enforcement officer.

“It’s more than just showing up on Monday night to vote,” Murchison said, about city council. “You have to work with personnel and staff who are working on the ground. You serve on committees and in the end everyone has to come to a decision.”

In 22 years, Murchison has served on numerous boards and committees, including those for the Maine GeoLibrary, the former Caribou Chamber of Commerce, the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen, Age Friendly Caribou, the Business Investment Group, Aroostook Waste Solutions and the Caribou Riverfront Renaissance.

He gives credit to his parents, Ken Sr. and Marjorie Murchison, who ran a small Caribou diner called Ken’s Chicken Coop for 26 years. They took pride in serving the community and teaching Murchison and his four siblings how to earn a living.

“All of us kids helped out. We would wash dishes, set tables and peel potatoes,” Murchison said. “My dad really enjoyed owning his own business. His friends from the Lion’s Club would meet there for coffee.”

After retiring, Murchison plans to remain involved with local committees and is especially excited to help revive interest in Caribou’s riverfront. He can recall a time when the riverfront was Caribou’s capital of agricultural processing facilities and part of Aroostook’s railroad system.

Starting in the 1980s, there was a major push to clean up environmental waste that nearby power plants and agricultural facilities dumped into the Aroostook River, he said.

Murchison sees the riverfront as one of the biggest strengths Caribou has for its recreational opportunities and natural environment.

“We have one of the best trout fisheries in the state,” Murchison said. “When I was younger, you could never see eagles or Canada geese fly overhead, but now you do on a regular basis.”

Murchison’s enthusiasm for community has made him a trusted and popular local leader, said City Manager Penny Thompson.

In 2014, after Murchison had stepped down from city council, he was re-elected in June 2014 as a write-in candidate. Murchison ended up serving through the end of that year to fill an unexpired term that was left vacant.

“That makes him a political legend in my book,” Thompson said.