This former starch factory is one of several buildings along Caribou's riverfront that has delayed redevelopment of that area for decades. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou is more serious than ever about launching a rebirth of the city’s riverfront, but two historic and now dangerous properties will likely delay full redevelopment for at least a decade.

Once considered a prime industrial area, the region along Caribou’s portion of the Aroostook River was home to potato starch factories, railroads and a massive steam and diesel power plant. With the railroad now inactive and most industrial and agricultural buildings torn down, city officials are formulating plans to redevelop the riverfront into a more prosperous spot for residents and businesses. 

So far they have taken steps toward a potential rails-to-trails project, given the green light to a developing campground and are rezoning the five-mile riverfront stretch to be more business and residential friendly.

But thanks to a costly and time-consuming industrial cleanup project, Caribou will have to wait awhile before large-scale growth can take place near the riverfront.

Located at the site of Caribou’s former hydro power dam, the Maine Public Service power plant once generated 30 megawatts of power through adjacent steam and diesel plants, which were 12,288 square feet and 10,290 square feet, respectively.

The plants generated power for Aroostook County residents from the 1950s until 1992, after which Maine Public Service sold the facilities to Wisconsin Power Co.

Though there were brief attempts to restore the plants in the early 2000s, both the steam and diesel sides stood vacant until local investor Jim Barresi, formerly of Northern Maine Development Commission, began a company called MerlinOne and purchased the plants.

Barresi had hoped to operate the plants as backup power in case of a large-scale outage. Those plans ended with Barresi’s death in 2019.

Caribou acquired both the steam and diesel plants through unpaid taxes soon afterward, but have found themselves in charge of a massive environmental mess.

“There’s plumbing from the ‘40s and ‘50s lined with asbestos and petroleum left over in the steam drums,” said Ken Murchison, Caribou code enforcement officer. “The roof of the steam plant is leaking. There’s graffiti on the walls and broken windows. It looks like they left the papers in the office exactly as they were.”

While the city has secured the site to prevent vandals from doing more damage, they are still responsible for cleaning up asbestos and hazardous materials.

Though officials do not yet know the total cleanup costs, they estimate the hazardous materials removal to need at least $3 million, with the total cleanup taking perhaps from five to 10 years.

Murchison met with officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection this week in hopes of figuring out the exact costs and then helping the city pursue federal and state funding.

The city will likely apply for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield grant program, which assists landowners with cleaning up hazardous waste and other contaminants.

“It’s an awful waste of resources,” Murchison said, about the power plant. “I visited the place as a Boy Scout, and back then all the machines were running, the brass was shiny and the lights were bright. Now it’s a blight on our community leftover from the Industrial Era.”

Another such relic sits nearby, but without city ownership, officials have far less control over its fate.

Located on a 1.2-acre land parcel overlooking the river, the former potato starch factory went defunct in the 1990s and has been deteriorating since. With the 30-foot-tall basement ceiling collapsing and a crumbling stairwell, the building is beyond repair.

Even worse, the basement has been exposed to the weather and is easily accessible from the outside. Murchison and local police have seen people, who they suspect to be experiencing homelessness, exiting the basement after having sought shelter there.

With the 3,000-square-foot building’s owner living in Hallowell, all the city can do is discourage people from going inside.

Fortunately, the building and property are up for sale for $50,000, Murchison said. An online classified ad references the city’s riverfront redevelopment goals and the building’s location near snowmobile and ATV trails.

“If the [starch] building was gone, you would have a great view of the river for a restaurant or other business,” Murchison said. “It could be a destination spot.”

With Caribou’s new Riverfront Renaissance Committee drafting its master plan and the city revising its 10-year comprehensive plan, Murchison expects riverfront development to be a high priority over the next decade.

Though previous comprehensive plans addressed the need for a more vibrant waterfront, the city focused first on beginning downtown revitalization and expanding recreational trails. That latter goal has been accomplished, leaving more room to explore ways to bring people to Caribou’s scenic riverfront.

Even with the power plant’s costly cleanup, the city will be well poised to control future development in that spot and hopefully entice aspiring business owners, Murchison said.

“It’s going to be a long project, but in an odd way it gives us a good hold on the riverfront,” Murchison said. “It could be our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”