Bangor Daily News
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CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou’s downtown center is seeing more new businesses, but a scarcity of retail and gathering places sends many locals elsewhere.
Sweden Street was traditionally the hub of Caribou’s downtown. Even after the controversial Downtown Mall brought a more urban feel in the 1970s, the city had an array of stores offering clothing, jewelry, furniture and other household items.
In the 1990s, the closure of Loring Air Force Base and the opening of Presque Isle’s now struggling mall caused most of those shops to leave. Now only a handful of retail stores exist on Sweden Street, forcing many people to travel to Presque Isle. Longtime business owners and residents say more retail and gathering spaces are needed to keep shoppers home.
The tide has started to change. Restaurants are reviving empty spaces on Sweden Street and two new spas moved in last year. Craft stores on nearby Herschel Street have given arts enthusiasts more incentive to check out the downtown.
Debbie Sutherland, owner of home decor and gift shop Brambleberry Market, has seen both the highs and lows of Sweden Street. She was in high school when department stores like J.J. Newberry, L.S. Hall, F.W. Woolworth and J. C. Penney thrived, prior to Loring’s 1994 closure.
“Newberry’s had a lunch counter. My mother and I always stopped in for an ice cream after shopping,” Sutherland said. “This would have been the late 60s and early 70s.”
When Sutherland opened her store in the Downtown Mall in 2010, those businesses were long gone, but Sweden Street had two clothing stores — The Cubby Thriftstore and the popular Buzzell’s.
The pandemic prompted both Buzzell’s and the iconic Reno’s Family Restaurant to close. Since then, many new restaurants have opened or expanded throughout Caribou. Sleeper’s Market, the city’s longest running supermarket, also carries clothing and shoes from its Lyndon Street location.
But most retail stores in Caribou are not on Sweden Street, meaning shoppers no longer think of the downtown as the first place to go.
“It would be nice to have more clothing stores and a dry cleaner,” Sutherland said. “A lot of people end up going to Bangor to drop off their dry cleaning and then back again to pick up their clothes.”
Caribou and Presque Isle have laundromats, but no dry cleaners.
Caribou resident Tracy Babin said she usually buys outdoor clothing at Sleeper’s and checks out The Cubby when looking for clothes or shoes for her children.
There are fewer stores than when she was growing up, Babin said. She admits traveling to Presque Isle for some shopping.
“I still think the downtown is a neat little area, but a general department store to buy things like sneakers or pet supplies would be nice,” Babin said, while shopping at The Cubby last week. “Then we wouldn’t always have to go to Walmart [in Presque Isle].”
One of Sweden Street’s newer businesses — Ruska Coffee Co., located in the former Buzzell’s building — has given the public a place to gather. It has also made people think of similar businesses they’d like to see.
“I would love to see a bakery or bookstore. Somewhere like the coffeeshop where people can gather and foster professional and personal relationships,” said The Cubby co-owner Cindy Johnson.
Jan Grieco of Perham has become a Ruska regular. A writer and retired educator, she often stops in to enjoy a cup of coffee and chat with friends and fellow writers.
Though Perham is a bit closer to Caribou than Presque Isle, Grieco usually visits Presque Isle for longer shopping trips. More places like Ruska, she said, would give her more reasons to frequent Caribou’s downtown.
“There aren’t many gathering places besides bars or restaurants. We need places [like Ruska] that have a more homey feel,” Grieco said.
When Caribou City Manager Penny Thompson visits Sweden Street, she sees a downtown that could be vibrant again.
Thompson is the city’s go-to person for economic development, despite criticism from those who think Caribou needs a full-time economic director. After losing their marketing and events coordinator in 2021 and seeing city budgets tighten, leaders opted to rely more on local marketing consultants.
But Thompson sees an advantage in the knowledge that marketing experts Bethany Zell and Christina Kane-Gibson bring to the table. Both are Caribou natives and small business owners. Kane-Gibson was the city’s most recent marketing and events coordinator
“They come into contact with other small business owners more so than a full-time employee at the city office,” Thompson said. “So they add a different perspective when we talk about small business development.”
So far, the city has not received proposals for new retail or other businesses in the Sweden Street area, Thompson said, adding that much of what happens for business development will depend on which people have the best ideas.
But the city is stepping up efforts to help, Thompson said. Caribou recently updated its “Business Friendly Road Map,” a guide for aspiring entrepreneurs, and has expanded facade improvement grants. Ruska Coffee won one last year.
With more families and young entrepreneurs moving to Caribou, Thompson hopes Sweden Street can grow like other areas of the city have.
“People are recognizing that Caribou has a wonderful quality of life,” Thompson said. “It’s part of our job to remind people of what we have and how they could get started [with their own business].”
Caribou residents say more retail stores needed to grow downtown – Bangor Daily News
Bangor Daily News