Over the years, Tamara L. Barnett has taken to heart the various Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Business Expo themes. This year’s theme — “See the Future” — was one she enthusiastically embraced.

“They always inspire us when they give us a theme,” she said of chamber officials. “We always try to have fun (with) the theme of the show.”

To that end, Barnett dressed up as Doc Brown, complete with white lab coat and silver-colored wig, from the “Back to the Future” movie franchise. It just made sense to go that route, she said, considering that a DMC DeLorean was parked nearby, greeting visitors to the expo.

For Barnett, owner of the local Wild About Water, the “future” theme had a much deeper meaning than looking ahead to a new decade while connecting and networking with fellow business owners. Despite the grin-inducing costumes and props, including a custom-made clock at the back of the booth, those at the booth talked about to visitors about the future of water and the fact that it is not an unlimited resource.

“The future of water is one of our most important resources,” Barnett said. Her business provides water softening equipment to homes and businesses, most notably a reverse osmosis drinking water system. “It’s so limited. We must protect it.”

The 28th annual expo kicked off at the Downstream Casino and Resort’s pavilion on Tuesday with a businesses-only networking day and after-hours social; it opens to the public today. In all, 130 booths are on display, chamber officials said, and roughly 3,000 people are expected to attend the two-day event.

While booth representation embraced nearly every business and industry facet, from hotels to health care, not all of the booths were expo veterans. A few Joplin-area businesses were attending the festivities for the first time.

Tucked away in a coveted corner spot along the northwestern edge of the pavilion sat the Empire Market representatives. On display for the producer-only market were examples of items ranging from eggs to jams and jellies.

There’s a simple reason why the decision was made to attend this year’s expo, Empire Market volunteer Carolina Neal said: “We are a part of the community. We want to be a community space for downtown … to grow and expand.”

Since the market opened in April 2018, it has generated more than $360,000 in vendor revenue, welcomed nearly 48,000 guests — about 500 each week — and benefited from 1,000 volunteer hours, Neal said.

Also new to the expo was a second business that opened to the public in 2018, a restaurant that’s long been synonymous with good food and fun.

“We want to get the word out that we have reopened,” said Jodi Whisenhunt, manager of the Undercliff Bar and Grill in Tipton Ford, an Ozark landmark. “There’s been a lot of people who’ve said, ‘Oh! You’re reopened.’”

After a two-year hiatus as new owner Brad Ezell completed major interior renovations, the restaurant opened for business in December 2018. That was too late, she added, for them to attend last year’s expo.

Though they’ve been an established Joplin downtown presence for the last three years, Forget Me Not Flea Market also made its first appearance at the expo Tuesday.

“Meeting other people who own businesses today, that’s been amazing,” said owner Linda English, her booth showcasing, among others, Christmas-themed decor items found at her South Main Street store.

The expo, she said, helps them put “names to faces” with other Joplin-area business owners, creating a network that likely would not have existed otherwise.

“We’ll be back next year, oh, yes,” English said. “Definitely.”

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