By Mark Morris
Each spring, the town of Hadley attracts attention for its asparagus crops, as well as its crowded hotels and restaurants due to college graduations in surrounding towns.
This year’s asparagus crop is strong, and the Asparagus Festival is back and bigger than ever (more on that later). Graduations are all on schedule, too. Getting to all those events — well, that can be a challenge.
Route 9 — Russell Street in Hadley — is undergoing a reconstruction of two and a quarter miles of roadway, which involves replacing infrastructure below the road as well as upgrading and widening at the surface.
In most towns with just over 5,300 residents, a road project would present only a minor inconvenience. But Hadley’s geography places it in a unique situation because Route 9 serves as the main artery connecting it to Northampton, Amherst, and several other towns. Between the universities and businesses in the area, traffic through Hadley — a largely rural community both north and south of Russell Street — can easily top 100,000 vehicles a day.
To keep things moving, communication becomes essential. With college graduations scheduled for the latter part of May, followed immediately by Memorial Day, Carolyn Brennan, Hadley’s town administrator, said mid- to late May is among the most challenging times.
“Once we get through the next few weeks, that will be huge,” Brennan said, noting that traffic becomes more manageable once the colleges empty out for the summer.
The week of May 7 proved particularly disruptive, as town projects were scheduled on several side roads — the same side roads drivers were using to avoid the Route 9 construction.
“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example.”
“We called it the perfect nightmare,” Brennan said, adding that police got involved to encourage residents to sign up for daily notices about where construction was taking place. “I’m so proud of the Hadley Police Department for taking a proactive approach to send out alerts every morning to residents so they know what streets will be impacted.”
While it’s helpful when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) issues weekly updates on Route 9 construction, Molly Keegan, Hadley Select Board member and co-owner of Curran and Keegan Financial, felt businesses in town needed more.
As an active member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Keegan felt Route 9 construction created several issues for Hadley businesses that did not affect chamber members in other towns. So she and Kishore Parmar, whose Pioneer Valley Hotel Group owns two hotels in Hadley, formed the Hadley Business Council.
“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example,” Keegan said. “Not everyone on the Amherst Area Chamber is keenly affected by the construction in the way that Hadley businesses are.”
After reaching out to the DOT and Baltazar Contractors, the Ludlow-based construction company doing the roadwork, Keegan and Parmar met with town department heads. The purpose of all these meetings was to make everyone aware of the business council and to encourage better communication in all directions.
“We are trying to find ways to leverage the business council so we are all talking, rather than having it be a complaint department,” Keegan said. “Anyone can complain; we’re looking to leverage these relationships.”
Now that the entity has been established, there are already conversations about how it may address future opportunities for Hadley businesses. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber, has suggested the Hadley Business Council could look at designing a map that would promote agricultural tourism. Stops along the way would be ice cream at Flayvors of Cook Farm, petting a cow at Mapleline Farm, and more. Keegan noted that farmers in Hadley are looking for ideas like this to promote agri-tourism.
Located on Route 9, HadLeaf Cannabis is one business accustomed to working through challenges. The group that started HadLeaf signed its community host agreement in February 2020, allowing it to start building the dispensary. Weeks later, COVID-19 shut everything down and caused huge delays. A planned opening for early 2021 was pushed back by delays until HadLeaf was finally able to open in October 2022.
“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open,” said Matt McTeague, regional manager for HadLeaf. “Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”
Kelly Tornow, general manager of HadLeaf, has worked in retail for most of her career. Since joining the operation in February 2022, she was part of the effort to get the dispensary up and running.
“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open. Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”
“This is the first time I’ve been involved with launching a retail operation from the ground up,” Tornow said. “The biggest challenge was learning all the laws and regulations that come with cannabis.”
To overcome situations like road construction, most retail businesses simply increase their advertising, but advertising cannabis is strictly regulated.
“We’re trying all the avenues that are open to us to get our name out there,” Tornow said, noting that membership in the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce is one avenue that has been successful. “Because we’re members of the chamber, we have a presence at their golf tournaments and other community events.”
Because podcasts are allowed under the advertising regulations, an informational podcast wil launch soon at hadleafuniversity.com. “We will produce it in the store with different speakers and vendors,” Tornow explained. “The idea is to educate consumers about different aspects of cannabis.”
The HadLeaf name has been a positive marketing tool as well. McTeague said many people compliment him on the creativity of the name. “We wanted something that would be relevant to cannabis and identify with the town of Hadley. We tried a couple combinations, but HadLeaf really stuck.”
But the term ‘Hadley grass’ has nothing to do with cannabis; that’s another name for the crop that has made Hadley the asparagus capital of the world.
For decades, Hadley asparagus has had the reputation of being served in fine restaurants across the globe. According to mediterraneanliving.com, for many years Queen Elizabeth II served Hadley asparagus at her annual Spring Fest.
New England Public Media (NEPM) sponsors the annual Asparagus Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 3 on the Hadley Town Common. While the event is in its ninth year, the festival was not held for two years during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the event drew between 6,000 and 7,000 attendees. Last year, an estimated 8,000 people came out on a sunny Saturday to enjoy the return of the festival. Vanessa Cerillo, NEPM’s senior director of Marketing, Communication, and Events, expects the same kind of crowd this year.
“The Asparagus Festival is about celebrating the wonderful agricultural heritage of Hadley,” Cerillo said. “We’re excited to produce the event and partner with the town of Hadley for the year-long planning that goes into the event.”
More than 100 local food, crafts, cultural, and agricultural vendors will be represented at the festival’s Farmers and Makers Market. Local breweries will set up in the Beers and Spears tent, while food trucks will be on hand with traditional fare as well as fried asparagus and even asparagus ice cream.
For the first time this year, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) will take part in the festival, offering free bicycle valet service.
“Everyone who rides their bikes to the festival can leave it with a valet, where it will remain secure while they enjoy the festival,” Cerillo said. “The festival gets so packed with cars that we are encouraging people to ride their bikes to it, if they can.”
Festival attendance is free with a suggested $5 per person (or $20 per family) donation to support public media in Western Mass.
Worth the Wait
In addition to approving a new budget at the Hadley town meeting held in early May, the community unanimously approved expansion of ambulance service. Action EMS provides primary ambulance coverage for Hadley. A second ambulance run by the town will shortly be added due to the call volume, which is affected by those 100,000 drivers who use Route 9 every day.
“We certainly benefit from the entire commercial district along Route 9,” Keegan said. “Because of the high traffic volume, we need to provide services like we are a small city and not a rural hamlet.”
To staff the ambulance, the town will hire two additional firefighters trained as EMTs. Brennan said the ambulance is scheduled to be ready by July 1.
“There’s quite a lot involved when you put an ambulance into service,” she explained. “We spent all of last year outfitting the ambulance, training the staff, getting state approvals, and more.”
Hadley at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1661
Area: 24.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $11.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.54
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available
One long-term project Brennan discussed involves increased maintenance on the West Street levee along the Connecticut River that plays a vital role in flood control for the town.
“The levee is doing its job, but we are continuing to work with engineers to make sure it provides protection well into the future,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to achieve FEMA certification, which is a multi-year process.
More immediate town business involves compensation and succession planning. In order to make sure Hadley is paying its employees comparable wages, the town has hired a consulting firm to study compensation. The firm has also been charged with developing a succession plan.
“We have people in key departments who will be looking to retire soon,” Brennan said. “Like many small towns, we have several one-person departments, so we’re getting ready for the number of retirements that are likely to happen in the next few years.”
Another long-term project involves what Keegan called “a big conversation” about housing.
“We are taking a more focused look at our master plan, working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and with UMass,” she said. “If we are going to expand our housing, we need to figure out where should it go and what should it look like.”
The old Russell School, located across the street from Town Hall, will undergo a feasibility study to figure out the best options for possible reuse. Like many Western Mass. towns with older buildings, the cost of rehabilitation to bring it in line with today’s public building codes can exceed millions of dollars.
“The Russell School is a beloved building with a good number of people who want to preserve it and others who don’t want to spend the money to keep it,” Brennan said, noting that the study will look at options for the town to keep the school, pursue a public/private partnership, or sell it outright to a private entity.
Meanwhile, Route 9 construction continues, with the work moving along on schedule — even if vehicle traffic slows, at times, to a crawl. The project is expected to be completed by 2026.
Despite the current headaches, the investment is necessary, Brennan said, with a wider road and new infrastructure transforming Route 9 in ways that will benefit the town for years to come.
Keegan agreed. “I keep telling people, it will be worth the wait.”