Caribou City Manager Penny Thompson is pictured shortly after being promoted from the position of interim town manager in July 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Penny Thompson

CARIBOU, Maine — Lacking an economic development director for the past decade has not stopped Caribou’s leaders and entrepreneurs from trying to solve the city’s biggest economic dilemma: attracting and retaining businesses. But critics say their efforts are not enough.

Like other areas of Aroostook, Caribou has struggled to grow its population and business base since the 1990s when Loring Air Force Base in Limestone closed. Unlike neighboring Presque Isle, which many consider The County’s commercial and service hub, Caribou does not benefit from a municipal-funded industrial council or a full-time economic development director. Since 2012, leaders have relied more on collaborations between city employees and local business outreach groups.

That approach remains controversial because many residents and community leaders think the city has not invested enough in its own growth. Others say there must be a collaborative approach in a world where long-term employees are harder to find.

Caribou has had small successes in recent years, as evidenced by more entrepreneurs moving in and taking advantage of city-run financial assistance programs. Tourism is growing, too, especially in winter with snowmobiling and other outdoor recreation, leading to more visitors for existing restaurants and shops.

City Manager Penny Thompson credits that success to how many city employees play a role in sustaining economic development, even when it means moving beyond their normal duties.

For instance, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent also maintains local snowmobile trails and stays in contact with frequent visitors and those in the tourism industry.

Thompson spends 25 percent of her week pursuing business initiatives because her primary job is overseeing operations and being a liaison between department heads and the City Council — making her the go-to person for economic development.

That is a problem, Caribou Planning Board member Dave Corriveau said. As large industries have left the region surrounding Limestone’s former base just outside the city limits, they have also passed by Caribou. Even worse, Caribou has no person who can dedicate all their time to chasing these industries, he said.

“I wish we had 15 Gary Marquises and 15 Manager Thompsons who were all thinking from the same playbook. But they’re wearing 15 different hats and working their tails off,” Corriveau said. “[Because of that] I think we’ve missed opportunities to broaden our tax base. We need someone who can take our sticky notes of ideas off the wall and chase those ideas down”

Corriveau is one of the planning board members who earlier this year suggested the panel propose an economic development director position to city councilors.

An ideal director would collaborate with city officials on ideas, but have the time and resources for large-scale business outreach, he said. The person also would have business experience and be passionate about marketing Caribou to a wider range of potential employers.

City councilors have identified economic development as a major goal, but this year’s tight budget and uncertain tax rate have left a new director off the table.

The lack of movement on that position has roots in staff changes that date back to the years right after the Great Recession, Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said.

In 2000, Caribou hired its first community development director in several years, who pursued state and federal funding for infrastructure tied to economic growth, including sidewalk repair, recreation and public housing improvements. The city brought in millions to address downtown revitalization, help industrial ventures expand and repair roadways for more than a decade.

Cars line many parking spaces in front of businesses on Sweden St. in Caribou. Without a full-time economic development director, Caribou has struggled to fill attract businesses, including those who might want to settle on Sweden St. in the city’s downtown. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Things changed when the city’s longtime community development director fell ill and left in the mid-2000s, and her replacement did not stay long.

A new city manager came on board in 2012, and Caribou consolidated community and economic development tasks into the new job of assistant city manager, saving money by not having two separate positions.

The assistant position was eliminated when the person resigned, making the city manager Caribou’s unofficial economic development director.

“I don’t think anyone ever planned for things to happen that way. It was just how the city changed as the times changed,” said Murchison, who is also a former city councilor.

Those decisions leave today’s city leaders convinced that a fully collaborative approach to economic development is key, at least for now.

In addition to its own staff, the city also maintains and supports the nine-member Caribou Economic Growth Council, which meets monthly and includes professionals from the medical field, banking and insurance industries, and the utilities district.

The council provides loans that cover costs that a bank loan cannot, including for business start-ups, renovations and expansions. In the past decade alone, it has awarded 53 loans to local businesses, investing $3.5 million in Caribou’s economy.

There is also the Business Investment Group, a nonprofit separate from the city but whose membership includes Murchison and Corriveau. Made up mostly of local entrepreneurs, the group formed in 2012 and is raising funds in hopes of supporting economic growth.

Most recently, the six-member group used funds from land it sold to provide a short-term, low-interest loan to Phoenix Direct Care — the only direct primary care clinic north of Bangor. It opened on Sweden Street in 2018 and employs six people.

Thompson knows that the city’s approach to economic development will yield substantial results more gradually than in cities with a full-time director. But without the passionate organizing by city officials and business leaders, Caribou might never have seen momentum at all, she said.

“We know that Caribou is never going to be like Presque Isle, but we’d rather do the best we can at being Caribou,” Thompson said. “Our citizens are very engaged and they want their neighbors to succeed. I don’t know of any other town that has such grassroots involvement.”