At 7 or 7:30 on a weekday morning, Dale Wagoner walks past vibrant enlarged photographs on canvas of popular features of Henry County, on his way to his office.
“I’m blessed to be part of the county team,” said the Henry County administrator who is just celebrating his first year in that role, after a 31-year career with the county.
He came to the county in 1992, between his junior and senior years at Ferrum College, as an intern for the Public Safety department. A full-time job opened up, so he applied and became the EMS coordinator for rescue squads. That led to a hectic year of both working and going to school full time: “It was tough,” he said.
He also earned a Master of Public Administration degree from Virginia Tech in 2002 and has completed several programs in public affairs and is a credentialed manager by the International City/County Management Association.
Wagoner has had several positions in the Public Safety department – EMS coordinator, deputy director and then director. He also held a few other roles with the county, such as serving a few months as the Human Resources director and “helped with some IT stuff,” before being appointed deputy county administrator.
Wagoner calls himself fortunate to have started his career under Benny Summerlin, who became the county’s first Public Safety director in 1985 and eventually county administrator.
“He meant a lot to me,” Wagoner said. “He was my mentor. He took me under his wing. He was a good person.”
Summerlin died in 2012 while still in office, and Tim Hall was appointed as his replacement. Wagoner followed Hall in the role after Hall’s retirement last year.
When Wagoner started as county administrator on July 1, 2022, “I was very intentional with meeting with every department manager,” working on strengthening relationships, he said.
At the same time, “the board directed us to do a pay and compensation study, challenging employees to really step up.”
He said his management style “depends on the situation – participative, servant mentality. Sometimes you have to take it in a different direction depending on the scenario.
“I don’t mind making a decision and moving on. I trust my team and value their opinions and thoughts,” he said. It’s important to “treat everyone with respect,” whether or not you agree with their positions.
Unless he’s in a meeting, he keeps his office door open for staff to feel welcome to drop in to talk with him, he said.
Wagoner is a life member of the Bassett Rescue Squad, which he joined when he was 16.
“I always say the rescue squad was my hobby and I went to college for computers, then switched them around,” he said.
“I was a little computer nerd in high school,” and his undergraduate degree is in computer science. And though his career started off with focus on rescue squads, now it’s technology which takes a lot of his attention, thanks to bringing broadband internet to Henry County.
“For many years we were in a unique situation for a rural county,” he said. Though some of the county has no internet service whatsoever, other areas have good service. That put the county “at a disadvantage when we would apply for a lot of grant funding. For several years we got overlooked, because they would say” that more than half the county has good internet.
“We finally overcame that” with a West Piedmont Planning District grant for $33 million to bring broadband to the areas that don’t have sufficient internet service.
In fact, a major hurdle for that process was overcome on July 5, when the State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved Appalachian Power Corporation, a subsidiary of Appalachian Electric Power, to install fiber on poles.
Once that is done, Riverstreet Networks, a private cooperative company from North Carolina, would connect internet lines to houses and businesses.
He described three methods of delivering internet service: The slowest method is through copper cables. Coax cables “can carry a lot of data.” Broadband uses fiber optic technology, which carries data over transparent glass fibers – “the fast method of moving through light waves instead of soundwave.” People with broadband service “will have the fastest, most reliable speeds.”
Broadband internet will come to the county in phases. Phase I is for “anyone that has no connectivity whatsoever,” Wagoner said. That includes parts of Horsepasture, such as along George Taylor Road, and some areas in Axton, northwest Bassett, Henry and Oak Level.
Phase II would bring broadband to areas that have slow internet access.
“When we’re finished with this, anyone in this county that wants it will have access to broadband. Those that have none will have access to the best broadband. Those that have none [now] will have access to the best broadband in the county.”
Now that the approval for the poles has come through, the county will start promoting the coming of broadband through ads and billboards, he said.
Wagoner said a lot of his focus has been on economic development, “the absolute top priority for our Board of Supervisors. It has been for some time.”
The county is significantly bolstered by the recent $22.2 million grant to do the earthwork on Lot 2 of Commonwealth Crossing, he said.
That was the second highest amount given to any locality in Virginia – less than $3 million behind what Chesterfield County, which has a population of 370,700 received. Henry County’s population is 50,250.
The team working on that grant proposal “put together a very solid package,” he said. “It was an extensive process.” That included on-site assessments by the secretary of commerce and trade and a consulting firm.
A local funding match is required with this grant, and the county is “working on other avenues … to minimize the impact on the local taxpayer. We are taking every effort we can to find outside money. Hopefully good news on where we will fill that gap” will be announced on Tuesday.
Lot 2 “will give us a pad-ready site to market to prospective industry,” he said. “It will be the only site in Virginia with over 100 acres with all utilities in place and rail access. … Since we’ve announced that, the interest from large job creators” has been on the increase.
The site should be completed by the end of 2024, he said.
The coming of Lot 2 “all plays into the success of what we’ve accomplished in Commonwealth Crossing,” he said.
Though there were some naysayers at first, that industrial park has proven successful, with Press Glass, and then the “largest capital investment at once,” Crown Holdings. Commonwealth Crossing “created economic opportunity for our residents and creates a solid tax base,” he said.
What is coming to fruition now had its start many years ago, thanks to Summerlin’s initiative and “the foresight of the Board of Supervisors” to “spend some money” to prepare the sites, he said.
Other strong industries include Eastman, “one of the largest producers in the world of performance window film;” Monogram, the country’s largest producer of snack foods; and Star Springs Industry, which produces specialty products for Volvo trucks.
The days of heavy reliance on just one or two fields, such as furniture, are gone, he said. Instead, the county is intentionally “going after industries in diverse sectors,” with hundreds rather than thousands of employees. That way, if an industry or field fails, “it’s less impactful on our community.”
Unemployment is hovering around 3% and wages are higher now, he said.
The county will keep its push on economic development to keep unemployment low and encourage people to move back to the area, he said.
“The biggest responsibilities of local government” are education and public safety, which encompasses law enforcement, Wagoner said. “That’s what government does. That’s our main purpose.
“These things are still going.”
Though construction on the new Adult Detention Center was completed before Wagoner was the county administrator, “we closed out the paperwork” during his time, he said. “We were under budget and on time and received full reimbursement we were expecting from the commonwealth on that.”
His role also includes overseeing staffing.
There was “a lot of transition” in county administration last year,” he said, but “the public never saw it. We never missed a beat … and I commend the county staff for that.”
There were about 40 vacancies in county government, “and some were key positions,” such as the IT director, community development specialist and deputy county administrator. Now “we have good people in those positions doing a great job.”
Wagoner also is the general manager of Public Service Authority.
In the past year, the county worked out a deal with the Army Corps of Engineers “to ensure water supply coming out of Philpott [Lake] for the next 50 years. That puts us in a very unique position of guaranteed water resources.”
PSA also is expanding water service to areas such as Preston and along Route 57 and Stoney Mountain Road in Leatherwood and Axton. A new water tank on Elf Trail in Bassett will ensure enough pressure for “water supply into the southern side of the county well into the future.”
“I was hired by the Board of Supervisors, and I’m pleased by the Board of Supervisors and their guidance” and looks forward to many more years in his role, he said.
The impact of much of what he is working on now will not be felt “until 25 years from now,” he said.
This year, the county will be updating the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which has not been updated since 1995, he said. That “will direct a future code of action.”
The county also will do an industrial park study to help determine “25 years from now where we’re going to put jobs in Henry County.”
“Those are the big things that may not necessarily be sexy, not splashy,” but will have a lasting positive impact, he said.
“In 1995, the county had the foresight to purchase the Patriot Centre, and in 2007, Commonwealth Crossing.” And now it’s time to lay the groundwork for the next.