Lisa Wark cuts stained glass at her new store and workshop space, Glass With Class, which she has relocated from Presque Isle to Herschel Street in Caribou's downtown. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Fifty years after urban renewal gutted Caribou’s downtown and a controversial mall was built, city leaders are trying to figure out how to salvage that once popular area.

Between 1960 and 1970, Caribou’s population fell from 12,464 to just more than 10,419, echoing an Aroostook County-wide trend of more young people leaving for urban regions. So city officials proposed a $2 million Urban Renewal project, mostly funded with federal dollars, that lasted through the 1970s.

The city tore down wooden downtown buildings that were blighted and susceptible to fires as part of that. In Caribou’s most famous business district, Sweden Street, the city created four new modern brick buildings that became the Downtown Mall. But it didn’t take off as a commerce center. Today it mainly houses nonprofit, government and medical office space.

Installing new LED lights is one way Caribou has attempted to add more flavor to the once controversial Downtown Mall on Sweden St. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

The Downtown Mall is another example of what happened in Maine’s towns and cities during the Urban Renewal movement in the 1960s and 1970s —- when historic buildings like city hall in Bangor and Union Station in Portland were razed —- and now Caribou leaders are relying on entrepreneurs to rebuild the area.

When the mall was built, the Boston-based architects chose not to renovate older brick buildings on Sweden Street or make them part of the Downtown Mall. Many business owners and residents thought the more urban design would take away Caribou’s small-town feel.

Those decisions still bother lifelong residents, including city councilor and retired insurance agent Joan Theriault.

“I wasn’t opposed to urban renewal. There were buildings that needed to be torn down,” Theriault said. “But they tried to make downtown look more like Boston. The [mall] buildings here today have no character.”

In Theriault’s younger days, Sweden Street was considered the business center of Caribou. There were clothing shops, restaurants, banks, pharmacies and business offices. Daily traffic was constant as people traveled to and from work or spent the day running errands. Teenagers would hang out there on the weekends, sitting on benches and watching cars go by.

Clockwise, from left: Caribou City Councilor Joan Theriault remembers Sweden Steet’s former glory days while walking that section of downtown; Cars line up outside The Cubby, a nonprofit store that is one of only a few remaining retail shops on Sweden Street in Caribou; Theriault stands near a part of Caribou’s Downtown Mall where she worked as an insurance agent prior to that building’s construction. Theriault is one of many older Caribou residents who disliked the controversial mall when it was constructed in the 70s.

But few retail and restaurant owners came back when the Downtown Mall was completed. Those who did struggled to attract customers who did not like the new look and feel of downtown.

The section of Sweden Street that remained untouched still thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were several clothing stores, as well as businesses selling furniture and jewelry and the city’s original post office. Even the people who disliked the Downtown Mall accepted it as more offices filled the spaces.

But no one predicted the large-scale decline that downtown Caribou would experience starting in the 1990s.

When Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, neighboring Limestone’s population had fallen to fewer than 10,000 people and Caribou’s was just more than 9,400. Thousands more left during that decade, taking away a large swath of people who had frequented Caribou’s downtown.

“I think the Downtown Mall had some impact on downtown, but the base closing really had a domino effect, especially on retail,” Theriault said.

Prior to that, Caribou’s most popular retail clothing stores included JCPenney, F.W. Woolworth, L.S. Hall and J.J. Newberry. But those and many other businesses quickly shuttered their doors after the base closed. JCPenney moved to the Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle, which opened in 1993.

The once controversial Downtown Mall in Caribou is now home to Brambleberry Market, a gift and decor shop, as well as many healthcare and government offices. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Much like today’s indoor malls, the Sweden Street complex has found itself more likely to house office space, nonprofits and specialty businesses like daycares than retail stores. Only one shop — Brambleberry Market — exists in the Downtown Mall. Nonprofit store The Cubby is the only place to shop for clothes on Sweden Street or anywhere in downtown Caribou.

But Caribou leaders have begun expanding their ideas of what defines downtown in order to attract new businesses.

In the years since Loring left, the city’s zoning codes have gradually expanded to include Bennett Drive, a large business district near Route 1; Water, High and most of Main Street and part of the Access Highway, which connects Caribou and Limestone. Businesses on those streets benefit from a tax incentive program and other grant opportunities specifically for the downtown zone.

Recently opened downtown businesses include a gym on Bennett Drive and a carpentry shop on Water Street, both of which received facade improvement grants. A new bowling alley and restaurant will open on Access Highway later this year.

Caribou leaders are also investing more in Sweden Street, adding new LED lights and trees and building annual events around the area.

In 2013, Caribou held its first Thursdays on Sweden Street festival. That event has become a biweekly summer series that brings in hundreds of visitors and has given more exposure to home-based crafters and small businesses.

Recent entrepreneurs have credited Caribou’s business-friendly attitude and policies as reasons they have invested in the downtown.

Tamara Lovewell, one of Caribou’s newest entrepreneurs, stands outside the former clothing store on Sweden St. that she and her husband Lance are renovating into a coffeeshop. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Seasoned Aroostook entrepreneur Lisa Wark is finding a supportive place on Herschel Street, near the gateway to Sweden Street.

“Thursdays on Sweden is good at bringing people to town, so that was a big draw for me,” Wark said, on her store’s location. “[Caribou is] a very friendly, supportive business community.”

Wark moved her stained glass shop, Glass With Class, from Presque Isle to Caribou this summer. Thanks to a city loan program, she owns her building, which used to house a thrift store.

Newcomers to Aroostook County, Tamara and Lance Lovewell are renovating a former clothing store on Sweden Street into a coffee shop they will call Ruska Coffee Co. The Washington-state natives moved their family to Caribou last year and quickly saw a need for home-brewed coffee and food in a section of Sweden Street farther from the downtown center.

Tamara Lovewell, one of Caribou’s newest entrepreneurs, stands outside the former clothing store on Sweden St. that she and her husband Lance are renovating into a coffeeshop. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

That’s good news for an area that used to have the popular Reno’s Family Restaurant across the street that closed in 2020 shortly after the pandemic lockdown.

The Lovewells wanted to bring a fresher, more upbeat feel to that part of the street and give the community a place to socialize, Tamara Lovewell said.

City leaders hope these businesses bring others to the area.

“We’re seeing a trend toward smaller niche businesses and personal services instead of big box stores,” said Ken Murchison, the city’s code enforcement officer. “It’s encouraging to see people coming back to the town’s center.”