BANGOR, Maine — Donna Gambrell of the U.S. Treasury Department has done a lot in the line of duty.
After hurricanes Rita and Katrina, she spent 18 months working on rebuilding initiatives in the Gulf Coast area.
But she’s never before had a day like Monday, when she took a 15-mile spin down the unpaved Golden Road during a major snowstorm and visited Millinocket, all while investigating some of the opportunities and challenges facing rural Maine.
“I didn’t have a true appreciation before of the timber industry, or what happens when you lose part of that industry,” Gambrell said Monday afternoon at a meeting at Bangor Savings Bank. “The folks I met seem very bright, very creative, and there’s clearly a high unemployment rate. People are struggling.”
Gambrell, the director of the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, was hosted by the nonprofit development group Coastal Enterprises Inc.
She is speaking today at the group’s annual meeting in Freeport.
“We’re touring her around so she can better understand the impact of [the CDFI Fund’s] funding on a group like CEI,” said Ronald Phillips, CEI president.
They stopped at Katahdin Timberlands LLC, a company to which Phillips’ agency provided capital, and dined at the River Drivers restaurant in Millinocket.
On her whirlwind tour, she met with the restaurant owner and local entrepreneur Matthew Polstein to hear about his plans to create an ecotourism resort.
“What I’ve seen are people who have this tremendous spirit and commitment to their communities,” Gambrell said.
She stopped at Bangor Savings Bank to touch base with officials about some of Maine’s more innovative investment programs.
Gambrell sounded enthusiastic when she learned more about Maine’s $9.5 million low-interest loan program for small- and medium-size businesses, which debuted in December.
Those loans are made possible through the U.S. Department of Treasury New Markets Tax Credit funds and are administered by a partnership between the bank and the nonprofit agency.
“Public-private partnerships are crucial,” Gambrell said.
Her fund is designed to increase the ability of the nation’s financial institutions to provide credit and capital to under-served populations and communities around the country.
“Since coming to the CDFI Fund, I’ve had a special emphasis on making sure that rural areas were covered,” Gambrell said.
Despite the global recession, she said that she is optimistic about helping communities such as Millinocket develop a more vibrant economy.
“I’ve seen it work with the CDFI Fund,” she said. “Communities take that funding and leverage it. It can work. I’ve seen how the communities have been transformed in very positive ways.”
What is working in places on the Gulf Coast also could work in communities such as Millinocket, Gambrell said.
“I’ve seen places that were struggling in the same way, and they really have started to make a turnaround,” she said.