Cuyahoga Falls -- Attendance at the Chamber of Commerce's annual Community Expo was higher this year than it was in 2016, according to the Chamber's leader.

Laura Petrella, CEO of the Chamber, said there were "approximately 4,000 attendees" at the free event in the Natatorium on March 25. Last year, the event was attended by more than 3,000.

"We gave out all our bags at both doors" said Petrella. "It was busy from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m."

A total of 84 businesses, non-profits and other organizations had exhibits at this year's event.

"It was great to see so many of our small businesses interfacing with the community," said Kathy Romito, President of the Chamber of Commerce Board. "People liked being able to meet the business owners directly. It has that small town feel where you do business with your neighbors, people you know and trust."

A new feature this year was a performance by members of the Cuyahoga Falls High School Marching Band.

"[It] was really neat to have them," said Petrella. "Everyone absolutely loved hearing them perform. We had so many positive remarks about them. We will definitely ask them to come back next year as this also helps to make the event family-friendly and exciting."

Another new offering was Western Reserve Hospital providing a "Talk to a Pharmacist" service where attendees could bring their medications and ask questions.

"We had quite a few people stop by the table to ask questions about medications, supplements and drug interactions," said Romito, who is also the community relations manager for the hospital. "Additionally, many concerned residents asked about safe drug disposal."

She noted the hospital is hosting a "Drug Take Back Day" on April 29 from 10-2.

Other highlights, Petrella said, included "a lot of" items being collected for Cuyahoga Falls Good Neighbors, Guardians Advocating Child Safety and Protection (GASP) creating fingerprint ID kits for about 50 children, and organization mascots interacting with the attendees. The mascots making an appearance were: Wheelie of the Akron Racers; Webster of the Akron Rubber Ducks; Scrappy Raccoon from the city of Cuyahoga Falls; and Captain America from Party People LLC.

"The characters in the crowd are always a big hit with everyone," said Petrella. "They walked the crowd to visit with the attendees. We feel this makes it very family-friendlyPeople love getting their photo taken with the characters from babies, children, teenagers and older adults alike."

The free community shredding service offered by Neoshred in the Natatorium parking lot "is always a big hit with our residents," said Petrella. "The bonus is they shred your materials right on the spot so you may observe this happening."

A Neoshred official said 7,945 pounds of paper brought in by 172 cars was shredded on March 25. It was an 83 percent increase in vehicles and a 76 percent increase in paper collected from last year, according to the official.

The face painting offered by Sunrise Senior Living was also a "big hit," said Petrella, who added that feature will return in 2018.

The mascots, the collection of items taken by Good Neighbors and the band's performance "made this a well-rounded community event," said Romito.

Looking ahead to next year, Petrella noted that organizers are thinking about having the event conclude at 2 p.m. instead of 3.

"People have busy lives and we want to be respectful of the vendors' and the attendees' time by keeping the expo efficient and productive," added Romito.

Petrella noted organizers are investigating using the Natatorium's main entrance lobby.

"Some current exhibitors expressed interest in being in that space next year," said Petrella.

Many exhibitors offered door prizes. Romito noted that organizers will encourage all participating vendors to offer a door prize next year because "it seemed that was a favorite element of those in attendance."

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