Caribou wants to be a ‘housing community’ to match regional business growth

4 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — City leaders and advocates in Caribou are exploring ways to increase affordable housing to meet expected demand from industrial development springing up in surrounding towns.

Maine communities are getting more creative to meet the state’s goal of doubling its annual housing production by 2030. Camden school leaders could possibly turn a closed elementary school into temporary housing for new teachers. Some places in southern Maine are converting churches into single- and multi-family housing units. 

Caribou has never conducted a survey to decipher how much and what type of housing the city needs most, but many agree that the city might be in a unique position to provide housing for future workers.

In neighboring Limestone, the former Loring Air Force Base has ambitious expansion plans, including a $55 million potato chip processing plant announced by local developers this week. F.W. Webb has opened a new flagship store at Presque Isle’s industrial park after outgrowing their Caribou location.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see big industries in Caribou again,” resident Jacob Beaupre said at a city housing symposium attended by developers, officials and contractors on Thursday. “But Presque Isle has the infrastructure [for industrial growth] and if this new potato chip plant happens, there’s an opportunity for Caribou to create housing.”

Caribou’s population is aging and the number of young people who might be looking for industrial jobs or other work is decreasing, said Jay Kamm, senior planner with Northern Maine Development Commission, who is helping to craft Caribou’s next 10-year comprehensive plan.

The city’s median age is now 52, 10 years older than Aroostook’s median age of 42. Within its housing stock, 1961 is the average age for most homes, 10 years older than Aroostook’s average housing age of 1971, Kamm said.

But it has grown more than other major cities in The County. As of July 2022, Caribou’s population was at 7,441 people, compared with 7,391 in 2020, less than a 1 percent increase, according to census data. Presque Isle saw a 1.3 percent decline, while Houlton remained effectively flat, gaining only seven residents.

Most of Caribou’s growth happened during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic as more young families moved in, giving the city’s new K-8 school an unexpected population boom.

Presque Isle has advantages with its industrial park, shopping mall and downtown center, but Caribou’s schools, recreational trails and entertainment venues are making the city an ideal place to live no matter where people work, said Dave Corriveau, a member of the Caribou Development Committee.

A formal housing survey could give developers a stronger sense of what “affordable housing” might mean for different people and what areas of the city are most suitable for new developments, Corriveau said.

“We might need a couple of higher-end homes, but your biggest percentage could be for a workforce that wants to move to Caribou,” Corriveau said. 

The more than 30 people who attended Thursday’s symposium also suggested that Caribou find ways to collaborate with developers and contractors to reduce the overall cost of constructing new housing units or renovating vacant and blighted buildings.

If someone wants to build a 3-bedroom ranch home, for instance, the estimated $250 to $300 per square foot would lead to a total cost of around $400,000 to $450,000, which could make the purchase price skyrocket, said Troy Haney, owner of Haney Home, Farm and Garden in Caribou and chair of the city’s development committee.

But there could be ways for Caribou to reduce those costs if they form partnerships and incentives for both the city and developers. For example, Easton has created two subdivisions and is working on a third after buying and selling one-acre lots to build homes. The town oversaw and paid for surveying and roadwork, while other expenses fell to future homeowners, Kamn said. 

“It was a win-win for everyone, and something Caribou might think about,” Kamn said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more people have moved to Aroostook from other areas of the country and work from home, Rob Kieffer, real estate associate with RE/MAX North Realty in Caribou, said. That could benefit Caribou even if the city never has a large anchor employer like McCain Foods in Easton, he noted.

“Twenty years ago I would have agreed [that Caribou needs an industrial park],” Kieffer said. “But people of all income levels now are working from home. So the idea of building up Caribou as a housing community makes sense.”