JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) —More than 80 Tri-Cities businesses and non-profits gathered at the Appalachian Highlands Business Expo Thursday.

The Kingsport Chamber-sponsored event was the first of its kind in more than 20 years. Membership Events Director Stephanie Hernandez told News Channel 11 that bringing the event back was an effort to combat the effects of the internet, pushing customers away from locally owned businesses.

“It takes that genuineness out of selling things and knowing the business owner that you’re buying products and services from,” said Hernandez. “We wanted to bring it back so everybody could come in and just meet face-to-face again.”

For the business exhibitors in attendance, creating connections with partners and customers was the name of the game.

“The reason why we’re here is to have that type of exposure, and it benefits not only them but us as well,” said Thomas Ambrosetti, an account executive with The Business Journal of Tri-Cities Tennessee/Virginia.

With Johnson City and Kingsport-Bristol metro areas recently ranking in the Wall Street Journal’s top 10 emerging housing markets, business owners said growth is something they’re looking to leverage.

Non-profit exhibitors, like St. Dominic Catholic School, agreed. They’re looking to connect to the region’s growing population.

“We want to affect more families in the area and have as big an impact as we can,” School Board Member Brad Moncla said. “We’re looking to get more students as more people move (in) from out of town.”

Hernadez said her goal for the event wasn’t just to help new businesses but new residents as well.

“You can come here if you’re new to the area, find your groomer, find your veterinarian, find your bank that you want to work with all under one roof,” said Hernandez.

The event continues Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Meadowview Convention Center.