CARIBOU, Maine — As Aroostook County continues to struggle with youth out-migration, one city is a promising destination for young entrepreneurs.
Caribou, along with the neighboring city of Presque Isle, saw a 9.2 percent decline in population over the past decade, higher than Aroostook’s overall decline of 7.1 percent, according to the U.S. census. As of 2020, the city had a population of 7,396 people compared with 8,189 in 2010.
Those statistics have urged city leaders to communicate with current and aspiring business owners and invest in resources that make Caribou more attractive to creative-minded young people. It’s an ambitious project for a city that does not have an economic development director, but town leadership working together is making it happen, according to several young entrepreneurs who are opening shop or expanding their already successful businesses.
Like many 20-something Caribou natives, Derick St. Peter was seeking larger scale career opportunities when he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2014. A long-time country music fan, the college graduate hoped to be a manager for recording artists. Within three years, he was working for a management company and backstage at the Country Music Television Awards.
But when he began helping a friend with carpentry jobs, St. Peter realized how much he enjoyed working with his hands. He accepted solo jobs and loved the work so much that he returned to Caribou in 2017 to see if there would be enough demand for someone with his skillset.
Five years later, St. Peter’s business — Creative Carpentry of Maine — is a one-man operation that sells handmade home decor and gift items to loyal online customers in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Guam. Using a local facade improvement grant, St. Peter is renovating his 1970s-era shop in downtown Caribou for an indoor shopping experience for local customers and tourists.
St. Peter, 32, credits the open conversations between city government and business owners as a major reason why more young entrepreneurs are taking their chances on Caribou.
“[Business owners] know that they can go to the city with questions and concerns and that [the city] wants to see these businesses prosper. Having that support means a lot for young people starting out,” St. Peter said.
The city’s support has also inspired young entrepreneurs who are making service businesses more accessible to Caribou area residents.
Jen Anderson, whose family is from Ohio, moved to Pennsylvania shortly after graduating from Caribou High School in 2002. After working various jobs in retail and the nonprofit sector, Anderson became a licensed massage therapist and saw the career switch as one with more opportunities to help people.
Anderson returned to Caribou four years ago to be closer to family. She provided services alongside a local chiropractor but became so busy that she started a larger practice from her home.
The demand for massage services has grown to where she has expanded to Caribou’s downtown and hired a second, part-time massage therapist, Anderson said. She just opened Thrive Body Spa on Sweden Street, a section of Caribou that has especially struggled to retain businesses since the closure of Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base in the 1990s.
The city hopes that proposed changes to the city’s ordinance for home occupations, including an expansion of allowed business space in a home or accessory building, will spur growth of home-based ventures that might relocate to downtown commercial buildings.
City leaders were enthusiastic while helping her move downtown and have also awarded her a facade grant to purchase new signage, Anderson said.
“They told me, ‘This is the type of thing we like to see. A home occupation that’s so busy they need a larger business space,’” Anderson said. “Caribou definitely has a small town vibe. People are very supportive and they want to give you advice.”
That vibe encouraged Andre Rossignol, a 2017 Caribou High School graduate, to turn his passion for physical fitness into a business geared toward young athletes and the general public.
Rossignol opened Rossignol Performance and Fitness last fall. The gym is available for public use but Rossignol also provides strength and conditioning training for middle and high school athletes, including some from Madawaska and Hodgdon.
Rossignol is originally from Van Buren but lives in Caribou and has become more invested in the community through coaching high school sports teams. While attending college in Presque Isle, he gained training experience at his uncle’s clinic and grew his clientele.
But what has truly allowed him to open his own business are the connections he has with other entrepreneurs. Like the people at the city office, local business owners have given him the advice and motivation he needed to obtain his goals in Caribou.
“The city is willing to listen to ideas and business owners are willing to give you advice and help you learn as you go,” Rossignol said. “I think that mindset is going to help people like myself who want to find a niche area that they can serve.”
If Caribou can continue encouraging ambitious entrepreneurs, the city might have a stronger chance of attracting newcomers, especially those seeking more rural areas after the COVID-19 pandemic, City Manager Penny Thompson said.
With many new businesses in development for the city, she sees the inclusion of more young entrepreneurs as a sign of hope.
“There are many people from Caribou who want to see the community thrive and be part of the solution,” Thompson said. “The younger generations have that spark of confidence to say what they want to do and how they can do it.”