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CARIBOU, Maine — Downtown Caribou is seeing more new business, but a lack of retail and gathering places is sending many locals elsewhere.
Sweden Street has traditionally been the center of downtown Caribou. Even after the controversial Downtown Mall brought a more urban feel in the 1970s, the city had a number of stores that offered clothing, jewelry, furniture, and other household items.
In the 1990s, the closing of Loring Air Force Base and the opening of the now struggling Presque Isle Mall caused most of those stores to leave. Now there are only a few retail stores on Sweden Street, forcing many people to travel to Presque Isle. Longtime business owners and residents say more retail and gathering space is needed to keep shoppers at home.
The tide began to turn. Restaurants are reviving empty spaces in Švejda street, and two new spas were moved in last year. Artisan shops on nearby Herschel Street gave art enthusiasts more incentive to explore downtown.
Debbie Sutherland, owner of home decor and gift shop Brambleberry Market, has seen Sweden Street’s ups and downs. She was in high school when department stores like JJ Newberry, LS Hall, FW Woolworth and JC Penney were thriving, before Loring’s closed in 1994.
“Newberry had a lunch counter. My mother and I always stopped in for ice cream after shopping,” Sutherland said. “This would have been in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
When Sutherland opened her Downtown Mall store in 2010, those businesses were long gone, but Sweden Street had two clothing stores — Cubby Thriftstore and the popular Buzzell’s.
The pandemic has caused both Buzzell’s and the legendary 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 footwear from its Lyndon Street location.
But most of the retail in Caribou isn’t on Sweden Street, meaning shoppers no longer think of downtown as the first place to go.
“It would be nice to have more clothing stores and dry cleaners,” Sutherland said. “A lot of people end up going to Bangor to get dry cleaned and then come back to pick up their clothes.”
Caribou and Presque Isle have laundry facilities, but not dry cleaning.
Caribou resident Tracy Babin said she usually shops for outdoor clothing at Sleeper’s and looks at The Cubby when looking for clothes or shoes for her children.
There are fewer shops than when she was growing up, says Babin. He admits to traveling to Presque Isle to shop.
“I still think downtown is a neat little area, but the department store would be good for things like sneakers or pet supplies,” Babin said while shopping at The Cubby last week. “Then we wouldn’t have to go to Walmart all the time [in Presque Isle].”
One of Sweden Street’s newer businesses — Ruska Coffee Co., located in the former Buzzell Building — has given the public a place to gather. It also got people thinking about similar jobs they would like to see.
“I would like to see a bakery or a bookstore. Somewhere like a coffee shop where people can gather and nurture professional and personal relationships,” said Cubby’s co-owner Cindy Johnson.
Jan Grieco of Perham has become a regular member of Russia. A writer and retired educator, she often stops by to enjoy a cup of coffee and chat with friends and fellow writers.
Although Perham is somewhat 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 visit the Caribou Center.
“There aren’t many gathering places other than bars or restaurants. We need seats [like Ruska] that have more of a 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 economic development person, 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 decided to rely more on local marketing consultants.
But Thompson sees an advantage in the knowledge that marketers 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 get to interact with other small business owners more than with a full-time job in 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 theirs “Roadmap suitable for business”, a guide for ambitious entrepreneurs and extended grants for the improvement of facades. 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.
“People are recognizing that Caribou has a wonderful quality of life,” Thompson said. “Part of our job is to remind people what we have and how they can get started [with their own business].”
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Caribou residents say more retail stores needed to grow downtown
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