MARION -- Organizers of the Southern Illinois Made Expo held at the Marion Pavilion over the weekend never imagined that the inaugural event would be so successful.
"The buzz has been amazing," said state Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg), who partnered with regional chambers of commerce to host the event that showcased local businesses and products unique to southern Illinois.
More than 120 local exhibitors with products from baseball bats to barbecue sauce and even boats, filled the Pavilion. The event also raised money for Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois.
Jennifer Olson, president of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, stepped in to help organize the event after Marion's Chamber executive director, Dalus Ben Avi, left to take another position.
"There was so much put in up front," said Olson. "Then we thought we hope this is truly a case of if we build it they will come."
"It's been a huge turnout," said Fowler, estimating that well over 2,000 visitors came over the two days.
Olson agreed. "I always feel the life sign of a good expo is that people and vendors are still there near the end of the event," she said.
While crowds were waiting at the door when the event opened on Saturday morning, visitors were still coming in during the final hour on Sunday.
Besides showcasing locally-made products, Olson and her crew were hoping businesses would find each other. That happened for John Stanley, owner of Stanley Food Systems in Harrisburg.
"We picked up a good-sized popular restaurant in Marion, and have an opportunity to put our product in their restaurant," he said.
Stanley also started talking with a locally-based economic developer, interested in helping him build a wholesale warehouse and even buy trucks to allow him to start a distributorship.
Stanley said his business up to now has been "baby steps." Now, he says, "This will be a shot in the arm."
Fowler also estimated the event raised at least $10,000 for Veterans Honor Flight. People were asked to contribute $5 at the door, but there also was a silent auction, and exhibitor fees.
Kimberly Stevens, who volunteers with Honor Flight, said a lot of people gave more than $5.
Both Fowler and Olson pointed out one problem -- they need more space for vendors.
"We don't want to turn anyone away," said Fowler. "Our booth space filled up two months ago."
Olson said there was a waiting list of businesses wanting to be a part of the event. Next year, she said, "We're going to consider a new layout or better use of the ballroom."
Fowler said they are also considering moving some vendors outdoors.
Olson, meanwhile, said she considers the first Southern Illinois Made Expo a success, and looks forward to making it even better.
"Anybody who attended should leave with more pride and be surprised at the things that exist in this area," she said.