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Community Close-Up: Small Town Not Just Smallville

The northern Illinois town of Plano stood in for Smallville in the Superman movie released in 2013.  While residents have embraced the recognition that came with the film, they want everyone to know the town is more than a Hollywood backdrop.

Drive into Plano and you can see the connection to the movie on the city’s welcome signs as you enter. Right under “Birthplace of the Harvester” – a reference to the fact that the McCormick reaper was perfected here in the 19th century – it says “Smallville, U.S.A.”

Marlene Kee owns The Office Works, an office supply business in the middle of downtown Plano. She says residents were happy to participate in the filming, and to celebrate it afterwards. And not just because of the glitz and glamour.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ
Marlene Kee

“Yorkville has the river. They have a riverfront festival. Sandwich has the Sandwich Fair and they have antiques. We never seemed to have an identity in Kendall County. So that’s what the Superman movie did. It put our name out.”

You can still see remnants of the movie in the city’s downtown, most notably, a two-story American flag painted on the side of an old brick building, with the words “Welcome to Smallville” down in one corner. The city has a small exhibit at the train station highlighting the town’s place in the movie, and the last couple of years, put on a “Smallville Superfest” in the summer.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Manufacturing used to be the mainstay of the community, but as has happened elsewhere, much of that has gone away.  There are still a couple of big companies in town, most notably Plano Molding, which is perhaps best known for its sporting gear – on its website, the company claims that if you own a tackle box, there’s a four out of five chance it was made by Plano. Company officials didn’t make themselves available for this story, but they have said publicly that they are not going anywhere.

Plano’s mayor, Bob Hausler, says that means a lot.   

“It’s very important that we keep our manufacturing base for the jobs, and quite frankly we’re very proud to be known as the corporate headquarters for Plano Molding.” Plano Mayor Bob Hausler 0000017a-0fdd-d736-a57f-1fff35120000

Still, like any town, Hausler and Kee say, Plano has actively courted a mix of businesses, bringing a Walmart, a Menards distribution center, and Rural King, among others, to town.

During the housing boom, Plano nearly doubled in size, increasing from around six to nearly eleven thousand people in the space of a few years.  Kee says there were some growing pains, but credits city administrations past and present with working to meet the needs of a larger and more diverse community.

Kee says there’s something else that gives her optimism about Plano – its citizens’ – both new and old -- sense of community.

“We have never had a problem with passing a referendum in this community, be it for the library, the fire department or the school district. The people that vote in this community, love this community, and want it to stay.”

Cara Cooper would agree. Cooper’s family has owned Cooper’s Home Furnishings in downtown Plano since 1886.  She and her sister are the fifth generation to run the business. Cooper says the city has struck a good balance between taking care of new and old businesses. Cooper says speaking as a resident, Plano’s location also strikes a good balance.

“Close enough to where if you needed to go to the city, you’re an hour away. But you can also take a five minute drive, and you’re in a rural community. So I think that Plano is right on the cusp of both of those worlds, and it’s nice.” Cara Cooper

But for Cooper, location is only part of it. After Cooper went away to college, she could have landed anywhere. Instead, after a little while she came back home. Why? Cooper says there’s just something about Plano.

“It still has that small town feel, where you can walk, get a cup of coffee and say hello to someone you know. I think I forgot that for a little bit. You know, you go to a bigger city where nobody really knows you. So it is a good familiar feeling coming back.”

Plano is not without its issues. Like others, it’s had to deal with the recession and the rise in foreclosures. And recent headlines about a hazing incident at the high school are a reminder that city is not immune to the problems faced by other communities. 

Still, when you talk to residents like Cooper, Kee and Hausler, you think, perhaps it’s a Smallville after all. 

Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."
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