When you settle in your chair tonight and flip on the television while your kids stream their favorite YouTube videos and your spouse disappears to join a Zoom meeting, but your Indianola Municipal Utility fiber handles it all with ease, say thank you to Jim McClymond.
“I think it would be fair to say that Indianola’s communications utility wouldn’t be in the place it is today without him,” said Chris DesPlanques, general manager of the local utility, which offers Indianola electricity, water, and as of a couple of years ago, Internet connections that carry telephone, television and WiFi to homes faster than many other companies serving Indianola offer.
McClymond, whose six-year term on the IMU board ends at the end of the year, said when he first started on the board, speed wasn’t Indianola’s only internet problem.
“I became aware that only one quarter of Indianola was connected to internet, thanks to the IMU board,” he said. “But they stopped there. So the rest of Indianola was subject to these private for-profit companies.”
McClymond wondered why, but never could find an answer. He started digging into internet access in other communities and soon realized that even what Indianola had was “archaic” — made of copper wire. The more people on the wire, the more the signal degraded, he said, limiting people’s access. In some places, people had no Internet access at all.
“I started learning about it and took it on as a project and the rest of the board said that’s fine,” he said. After research, he recommended going to fiber, which offers speeds up to 1 gig, regardless of how many people are using the Internet at once.
He brought in a consultant and a financial advisor to offer his ideas to the full board.
“It was a matter of taking on a lot of debt,” he said. “About $16 million and for IMU that’s a big deal. We decided to connect the whole town.”
McClymond’s figures showed that the new business needed 2,700 customers to break even. They gave themselves five years to get there.
Today, three years after launching, the communications utility serves 2,650 homes.
“We’ve had a tremendous response,” said McClymond. “The rates are reasonable. It’s local. It’s a matter of civic pride. It’s gone over real well.”
That’s in spite of problems the utility has encountered along the way, he said.
“We were a little overwhelmed at first, we’ve had some real problems with customer service,” McClymond said. “We learned some hard lessons.”
Internet was a new business for Indianola and for McClymond, an Indianola native who was drafted after graduating from high school in 1953 and rarely returned to Indianola after that.
He served in the Navy in Washington DC, eventually joining the NSA. He picked up a bachelor’s degree at George Washington University but “didn’t feel educated” so added a masters degree from the University of Michigan. Eventually, he moved to Waterloo before becoming president of Peoples Natural Gas, an Omaha company covering five states with about $1 billion in sales.
When he and his wife, Jan, started thinking about retirement, they looked at several places and finally settled in San Diego. Soon after they moved there, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness and passed away.
Throughout his life, though, McClymond retained good memories of Indianola, including a girl he met in third grade, Vernal Niefert. The two lost touch in high school, but after his wife's death, McClymond learned by accident that Vernal, then living in Indianola, had lost her husband, Rollie Renard. He called to offer his condolences.
“It was a long phone call,” he said. The two married 12 years ago. They agreed to spend summers and falls in Indianola and winter and spring in San Diego. One day at church in Indianola, he told former Indianola Mayor Kelly Shaw he needed something to do.
“He needed a new challenge,” Shaw recalled, and Shaw needed someone for the IMU board.
“I was looking for somebody who had utility knowledge and someone who can make contributions to the board,” said Shaw. “I wanted someone who would light up a match and get the fiber issue rolling along.”
Once on the board, McClymond decided to pick up the long-stalled fiber ball and run with it.
“Here’s an 83, 84-year-old guy, driving around Iowa and learning the best practices of putting fiber in the ground,” said Shaw. “Jim is largely responsible for the business model and helping the rest of the board members and the rest of IMU understand what was involved in that.”
That includes Mike Rozga, currently chair of the IMU board, who served four years with McClymond. Rozga said when he joined the board, he assumed that only 25 percent of the town had city-owned fiber available because it “wasn’t economically feasible.
“If it was, somebody would have done it before us,” said Rozga. “Jim is the guy who really changed my mind and said this is something we really need to look at and then, this is something we really need to do.”
The fiber is key to Indianola’s future, said McClymond.
“Indianola isn’t really a modern city without it,” he said. “Think of all the things that are connected to the Internet and all the streaming going on, and all the kids in college, high school or elementary that are at home doing their homework. It’s the future.
“There are all kinds of towns circling Des Moines competing for residents and businesses and any city that isn’t up to date is going to fall behind,” he said. “In terms of economic development, a fiber optic system available to the community really is a must-have kind of thing.”
But while fiber was McClymond’s focus, it wasn’t his only accomplishment, said DesPlanques. He also has pushed to expand energy efficiency programs with IMU.
“He wanted to make sure IMU was encouraging people to insulate and be energy efficient,” said Rozga. “It was important to him that we had a program in place. He’s kind of a progressive guy, he didn’t just back and attend board meetings and vote.
But fiber is his baby.
“I can’t think of a thing you would do that would be more important than this fiber option system,” said McClymond. He compares it to the decision to start a city utility in the first place. Or to his father, Don McClymond’s work with the local Lions Club to bring Indianola a swimming pool.
“It’s been a real opportunity to do something for my hometown,” McClymond said. “That means a lot to me. My dad was the driving force behind the swimming pool. He left behind a legacy. I think the fiber utility will be mine.”
McClymond's last meeting with the IMU board will be Dec. 15.