Troy Haney stands in front of the land he was developing in June 2021 to become a seasonal campground. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A city committee is aiming to turn the once-busy Aroostook River waterfront into a more vibrant space for residents, business owners and recreation enthusiasts.

An area that once was home to factories, residences and the railroad, and then became largely unused, could see new development.

Formed in fall 2021, the five-member Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee recently kicked off a major fundraising campaign that will finance a consultant to draft a riverfront master plan. This will allow Caribou to join other towns and cities in Maine, such as Rockland, that have revitalized their waterfronts and made them contribute to their economies again.

“We’re looking to revitalize a once-thriving area and make it a more pleasant place to visit,” Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said.

Murchison said the master plan will serve as proof that the city has a thorough plan for the riverfront, making Caribou eligible for redevelopment project grants. Those projects can include assisting entrepreneurs, constructing new housing and creating new parks and recreational trails.

In July, ENGIE Energy, an international solar power company, donated $7,000 toward the committee’s efforts. ENGIE is building a 25-acre solar farm near the riverfront, in an area that won’t disrupt scenic views, Murchison said.

The riverfront committee will use those and other funds to hire the consultant, whose plan will include the committee’s redevelopment goals, a vision statement, proposed land use and zoning regulations and a projected timeline for meeting goals.

Committee members hope to raise $50,000 to fund the consultant’s work.

Starting in the early 1900s, the area near the Aroostook River in Caribou was home to large starch factories and potato storage units as well as many residential properties. The region was also connected to the Maine Northern Railroad and served as the site for a now-defunct power plant.

As various industries left the riverfront area over the years, nearby homes fell into disrepair and many structures were demolished, though the old locomotive garage remains. Caribou has not seen active railroad service in a decade.

But the riverfront committee hopes to revitalize that region by attracting new businesses and working with its existing infrastructure.

This spring, they joined forces with leaders in Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield and Limestone to petition the Maine Department of Transportation to study the 33-mile stretch of inactive railroad that connects the four communities.

The DOT, who owns Maine Northern Railroad, has since agreed to form a railroad reuse commission that will study whether there is still potential for rail transportation.

The commission will also analyze whether the existing rails can be repurposed for recreational trails, a move that would connect the riverfront area to existing snowmobile and ATV trail systems.

Murchison said that if Caribou created new walking trails near the river, they could connect with nearby Water Street, a major gateway to the city’s downtown region.

“There’s a lot of potential for [the area], so long as it’s developed correctly,” Murchison said.

The beginning of Troy Haney’s seasonal campground, shown in June 2021. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

So far, the area’s most anticipated new business is one aiming to showcase the river’s natural beauty. Later this summer, Troy Haney will open a new campground near Limestone Street that will have clear views of the river and spots for people to park campers. His venture became more possible through recent changes to the city’s campground ordinance.

There is also a new climate-controlled snowmobile and ATV storage facility set to open this fall, with direct access to trails near the riverfront.

“The riverfront is one of our best kept secrets, but we’re seeing more interest because of these businesses,” Murchison said.