Bangor Savings Bank CEO Bob Montgomery-Rice, left, and chair of the board of directors Bob Strong, right, stand at the bank's waterfront headquarters on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

As Bangor Savings Bank enters the new summer, its leaders said they are optimistic about the future of the Bangor region’s economy, especially following a year when the major focus for the bank was issuing loans to help businesses survive the worst health crisis in a century.

The bank released its 2021 annual report on Monday, showing the extent to which it has extended its footprint in both Maine and New Hampshire over the last year, including through a $35 million merger with Damariscotta Bank & Trust that extended its reach in the midcoast.

Of the $2.94 billion in loans the bank gave out in fiscal year 2021 (which ended March 31, 2021), some $600 million came in the form of nearly 8,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses throughout northern New England. It provided another $1.71 billion in residential mortgage loans as Maine real estate sales and prices picked up.

The bank is especially proud of its PPP loans, a program established through the 2020 CARES Act signed by former President Donald Trump to help businesses pay their employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic-induced recession. Bangor Savings Bank issued nearly 1,000 of those loans after business owners who had trouble getting loans elsewhere were referred to the Bangor-based bank.

“It helped businesses get to the other side of the pandemic,” CEO Bob Montgomery-Rice said. “And now, you can see, we’re on the verge of that.”

As vaccination rates increase, there are early signs of an economic resurgence in the state. Merchant and debit card transactions have returned to pre-pandemic levels, Montgomery-Rice and board chair Bob Strong said. Payroll data show that employers are adding jobs, with the numbers really starting to move in the spring.

Some indicators may take more time to move.

Business loan demand is showing early signs of resurgence but will take longer to come back full-swing, Montgomery-Rice said. He said such lag is typical coming out of any crisis — people want to be supremely confident of the state of the economy before they invest. Start-ups are also picking up slowly, though more so in southern Maine than in the Bangor area.

“I’m optimistic seeing the number of people talking to our lenders,” Montgomery-Rice said, “because a loan just doesn’t happen tomorrow.”

In addition, the inability to find workers continues to be a significant problem in and outside the Bangor area, Montgomery-Rice said, with many of the bank’s clients seeing access to employees as a far bigger challenge than access to money or the pandemic more generally.

Maine had among the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic, allowing businesses to fare better than they did in parts of the country more significantly hit by COVID-19. And now, it has among the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Of the more than 1,100 employees of the bank, 86 percent are vaccinated, Montgomery-Rice said. Though it isn’t requiring employees to be vaccinated, it is offering to pay $500 to any employees who get inoculated, a policy that Montgomery-Rice said had encouraged many employees.

That $500 is nothing compared to the money they save with a fully vaccinated staff, Montgomery-Rice said. Fewer of the expenses associated with pandemic protocols would be required, he said. There is also less risk of outbreaks at any of the bank’s 65 branches or four business offices.

Most of the hundreds of workers based in the bank’s new headquarters on Bangor’s waterfront have come back to the office in recent months as mass vaccinations allow something of a return to the pre-pandemic workplace.

For Montgomery-Rice and Strong, the waterfront campus project saw the bank invest in infrastructure, especially technological infrastructure, that was indispensable during the pandemic.

Everyone working in the headquarters had a laptop when they were sent home in mid-March 2020, Strong notes. The devices would soon be hard to come by amid significant nationwide demand.

While 700 worked from home, 40 or 50 stayed on the campus, interacting with each other masked. The sprawling campus also allowed social distancing to be a more straightforward task.

“I feel lucky that we made this investment,” Montgomery-Rice said.