PORTLAND – Recent news coverage offers a hopeful economic report: America is seeing the lowest unemployment levels in 2½ years, and American companies, sitting on significant profits, are starting to hire again.

While the entire nation is cautiously reluctant to celebrate any glimmer of hope or good news amidst the long-standing economic challenges of the past two years, some of the success and new hiring is happening right here in Maine, under the roofs of the state’s hard-working small businesses.

According to Small Business Administration data, Maine is home to 147,484 small businesses, representing 97 percent of employers in Maine. The SBA defines a small business as one with fewer than 500 employees; most of Maine’s small businesses fall well below this number.

Small businesses in Maine run the gamut from the more traditional “mom and pop” corner stores to the family’s favorite plumber and electrician; restaurants, florists and hardware stores found in downtowns, neighborhoods and villages, and innovative technological, information and manufacturing enterprises.

Maine’s unemployment rates are lower than the national average, and our small businesses are to be lauded for their entrepreneurial spirit and their willingness to take risks, especially when times are tough.

GrandyOats, located in Brownfield, has been in business since 1979 making granola with 100 percent organic ingredients. Today, the company produces about 40 different products from its headquarters – a 100-year-old barn in western Maine.

GrandyOats captures an important market segment that prides itself on providing local, healthy food. Chief Granola Officer Aaron Anker reports his small business has experienced significant growth over the past decade, and he’s hired additional employees in 2011 to meet demands.

Akari, featuring wellness, beauty and style, has expanded with a medical spa and retail showroom. This Old Port business is housed in a recently renovated historic three-story space on Middle Street.

Akari’s customers enjoy massage and spa services, wellness coaching, an upscale clothing boutique and a bistro. Founder and visionary Allan Labos is proud of his growing business and his 50 employees.

Bob Johnson is co-owner of Scratch Baking Co., at Willard Square in South Portland. Those in the know get to this bakery early on the weekends before the bagels, breads and sweet treats sell out.

Demand is so high that customers are asked to limit their bagel purchases to just one dozen of the homemade bagels. The bakery recently added oven capacity and increased staffing in order to be open seven days a week. Business is brisk, especially during the holiday season.

At Apothecary By Design in Portland, customers don’t just get their prescriptions filled, they get attention, advice and individualized care from clinical pharmacists, nurses and patient coordinators. Apothecary By Design is locally owned and independent and – not surprisingly – it is growing.

At Winterport Winery, owners Mike and Joan Anderson have transformed a one-time hobby into a winery producing award-winning fruit-based wines.

In the last decade, the business has grown slowly and steadily, adding an on-site craft beer brewery and an event and banquet facility offering wine dinners and cooking classes.

These are just a few examples of the numerous small-business success stories we hear about every day. And while ingenuity and long hours are necessary to succeed in the marketplace, tapping into available funds – like those offered by the Small Business Administration – is also part of the recipe for business growth.

In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2011, Maine banks granted more than 390 SBA loans totaling $79 million to small businesses statewide. Bangor Savings Bank is proud to be on the list of lenders.

Last year alone, 20 percent of the loans that Bangor Savings Bank provided to small businesses were in conjunction with the Small Business Administration. Bangor Savings Bank recognizes the critical importance of providing access to capital, and that these funds go a long way in positioning Maine’s small businesses to plan and grow for the future.

Maine’s community banks are serious about helping small businesses succeed. Whether the loan results in a handful of new jobs, a new product line or a move into a storefront, by facilitating the opportunity, we witness important progress that fuels our local economic engine. This lending formula – based on people and communities – pays dividends to all of who live and work in Maine.

Erin Hurley is senior vice president and business banking and treasury services manager at Bangor Savings Bank in Portland.