LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Every summer, businesses along Canada Street open their doors. Restaurants and bars light up with life, from morning at Cafe Vero to late night at King Neptune’s Pub. Lake George itself transforms, going from a clear mirror to a patchwork of lines cut through by boaters, using the “Queen of American Lakes” to its fullest.
It wasn’t always that way, though. In 1971, the village had its revelers – but a very different reputation surrounded them. Village Mayor Bob Blais remembers the difference well. After all, that was the year the longest-running mayor in America took office – all in order to do something about it.
“It was not the popular tourist destination that it is today, particularly year-round,” said Blais on Wednesday, sitting in the village office where he has worked for over 50 years. “It was definitely ‘school-out to school-in.’ When school got out at the end of June, we would see an influx of people come up here, except for Memorial Day weekend. On Labor Day, all the businesses would shut their doors, and likely not open again until the following Memorial Day.”
In a way, Blais has acted as the gardener of Lake George’s economy. Around the start of 2022, he announced his plan to retire, after more than five decades of shaping the village of Lake George from seasonal bloom to year-round ecosystem. April 1 will mark 52 years since he decided to step in and get to work on turning the village’s image around.
When the mayor looks at the Lake George of today, image is certainly part of what has changed. Today, the village welcomes families – a fact that led the municipality to say no to marijuana dispensaries earlier this year.
Today’s village certainly has its share of rowdy nights at bars, with vacationers cutting loose away from home. In Blais’ day, things would get exciting at a rather different pitch.
“In the 1960s, we had the infamous ‘riots,'” Blais recalled. “Young people on our streets, drinking publicly. There was no open container law in place, the drinking age was 18, there were seven nightclubs by the lake and another seven on Luzerne Road. All of those people would hit the village at 1 o’clock in the morning.”
Back at that time, the village of Lake George had 22 police officers employed to keep things as safe and civil as possible. Today, it has zero, relying on county officers to help where needed.
Lake George’s Publicist
When Blais became the mayor of Lake George, he took on the responsibility of changing the village’s negative reputation – one which he says reached nationwide. The “riots” he referenced weren’t truly anything so severe, he says – just a lot of young people becoming rowdier than many visitors felt safe being around. Getting families back to the village, and telling them that it was a safe place to be, would take time.
“I do things slower than many other politicians,” Blais said with a smile. “But in Lake George, when we do get something done, we get it done right.”
Blais doesn’t have one single memory of looking at the changed village and thinking, “We’ve done it.” He does, however, know several things to point to that happened along the way. One is the lakefront walkway, running from Million Dollar Beach all the way to Shepard’s Park, curving with the lake’s edge and creating a much-needed extra avenue for shoppers and tourists.
That choice was a way of putting the lake more directly in visitors’ lines of sight, prompting more people to start boating, parasailing, and using the beaches. The philosophy was to turn attention away from the allure of Canada Street – important in its own right – and towards the bounty of nature that the small community cradles.
Cleaning up Canada Street was a good start. To follow, Blais spent decades cultivating between 30 and 35 special events, most of which are now longtime regulars for the community and its visitors. When Blais first became mayor, the summer’s only event was a performance by the Glens Falls City Band in Shepard Park.
Now, the summer is rung in with the roar of several thousand motorcycles for the annual Americade festival. The Lake George Music Festival brings a week of classical sound to town. The winter has been a newer project to cultivate, with Ice Castles Lake George building a castle for the second year at Charles R. Wood Festival Commons, while the Lake George Winter Carnival keeps an eye on the lake for its upcoming event in February. The events turn many one-time visitors into regulars, who keep Lake George in their hearts wherever they go.
“The guy that rode his motorcycle to town – with all his leather jackets and riding gear on – here he comes down the street with his Bermuda shorts on and his wife and four kids in July. We recognize him, and ask, ‘How did you come here?’ ‘I came for Americade.'”
All of those events create a lot of traffic – and the thing that Blais considers his biggest challenge. The village of Lake George is small, and while it doesn’t buckle at the weight of its visitor count, things can get tight – especially for those who live there.
“When you tell Mr. and Mrs. Jones that we’re going to have 60,000 motorcycles coming on a weekend in June, and that there’s going to be noise, and when you go downtown you won’t find a place to park, and the streets will be crowded – you have to make sure they understand the balance between having that event and keeping our taxes so low in Lake George,” Blais said. “You have to understand that, in fact, it is because of all of these events that we can keep those taxes low.”
The last few years, the next few months
Although already recognized as America’s longest-running mayor, Blais hadn’t quite yet hit the 50-year mark when he got to do something special, far outside his usual jurisdiction. In 2019, he traveled to Boston to throw the first pitch at a Red Sox game against the Baltimore Orioles, followed by many Lake George constituents who joined in a special celebration the night prior. Blais, a lifelong fan of all things Boston, says that even that big trip out of state all came back to Lake George connections.
“One of the owners of the Red Sox lives on Lake George,” Blais said. “I am proud to call him a good friend.”
That first pitch would mark the start of an interesting last few years, for Blais and the village alike. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created a busy year for the community, as more tourists sought outdoor recreation – the type that the lake and Adirondack mountains facilitate. 2021 followed suit, as one of the community’s busiest seasons on record.
The summer of 2022 has also been busy for Blais, in a different way. Over the summer, the village had to balance its usual busiest season with a new issue – whether or not it should merge with the town of Lake George, in order to share resources and debts. The topic was studied three times, but dropped in the spring, to be picked back upon the completion of a new wastewater treatment plant. A town employee petitioned to put it to a vote, giving the community a voice on the subject – and that’s just what happened.
“We went ahead and did the study along with the town of Lake George, and the people answered resoundingly that they understand and appreciate the community we currently have in Lake George,” Blais said. “Villages are created solely by the will of the people. The village of Lake George was incorporated in 1902, just because people wanted water service and sewer service. In the town and village, we share more services than any other community I can imagine, and I think people found that out during the study.”
The town and village will stay separate – the former serving as a haven of financial and municipal resources while the village does what it does best.
2022’s summer was another busy one for the village. Blais says the worst that things ever got was in 1978, when travel was impeded by gasoline rationing. Even so, though, a bad summer for the village isn’t really a bad summer.
“There’s better, best, good, and best-ever. We’re very fortunate.”
Once he retires next spring, Blais has plans. They’re not the “retire to Florida” kind, though. The last 52 years of his life have been dedicated to the village of Lake George. Many of the annual events that have defined the village are ones he has acted as the liaison to organize. He hopes to continue helping them run, on a part-time basis.
As for who will sit in the Lake George mayor’s office next, Blais hopes for someone with similar morals and philosophies to his own. After all – when you spend more than 50 years tending a garden, it’s only natural to hope for those plants to keep growing after you’re gone.
“I hope for someone who understands that the lake is the engine that pulls the train, and that we concentrate on doing everything we can to preserve the quality of the lake,” Blais said. “I hope that the next administration will continue to have that philosophy, and I’m sure that they will.”