By Paul Post
When Bob Blais—Saratoga Springs native and graduate of Saratoga High School—took the office of village of Lake George mayor there was only one special event in Lake George, a weekly Tuesday night band concert.
Now there’s an endless variety of year-round attractions such as Americade motorcycle rally, Adirondack Nationals car show, Ice Castles and a full lineup of events at Charles R. Wood Park’s Festival Commons like the Adirondack Wine & Food Festival and numerous concerts.
Together they draw tens of thousands of visitors to Lake George each year, which drives the local tourism economy. But without Blais’ leadership, it may not have been possible.
“People say, ‘How come you’ve been mayor for 52 years?’ It just takes me longer,” he said. “But I like to think when we get it done, we do it right.”
Blais’ career as America’s longest-tenured mayor is scheduled to end March 31 when his retirement takes effect. But his contributions to the area’s economic development will be felt for many years to come.
“His greatest attribute is his clear passion for the area,” state Sen. Dan Stec said. “It comes through in everything he says and does. Any time you talk to Bob Blais you can see this true love of Lake George. He’s been so long-tenured there, he’s synonymous with Lake George. He’s an icon.”
“I’m astounded at his longevity, continued energy and health,” Stec said. “I always tell him, ‘Bob, you need to find a way to bottle and sell it.’ He should because he’s got the Fountain of Youth secret somewhere.”
Blais, 86, plans to keep promoting Lake George after he leaves office in a new $35,000 director of special events position funded by the village, town and Warren County.
A 2022 study conducted for a proposal to dissolve the village (it was voted down) found that the mayor spent more than half his time working on tourism and special events.
“We ran 82 special events out of this office last year,” Blais said.
Plans call for him to continue in this capacity, giving new Mayor Raymond Perry, who’s running unopposed, a chance to get acclimated to the job without losing any of the tourism momentum that’s been built up over the past several decades.
This impact pays huge dividends for the entire region, but especially for Village of Lake George residents.
“When I leave office the village will have somewhere around $9.3 million in its coffers,” Blais said. “Between $3 million and $4 million of this is in the general operating checking account and there’s more than $3 million in surplus funds, which comes principally from parking meter revenue ($1.4 million annually). We put that in a separate account. We don’t even use it.”
“Last year we only raised $1.5 million from taxpayers for our $7 million budget. That’s unheard of,” he said. “All the services and special events we developed bring us a tremendous amount of money. If somebody wants a street light in front of their house or a sidewalk, we’ve got the ability to do that because of the tourism and special event fees.
The village gets about $1 million annually from sales tax, occupancy tax and special events fees.
During his 14 terms in office, Lake George was honored with an unprecedented four Empire State Local Government Achievement Awards. One was for saving taxpayers large sums with an aggressive policy of shared services with the town. In early February, the village and town boards and their department leaders met jointly to discuss every single shared service, looking for ways to make them better.
“That’s the type of cooperation you need between two communities,” Blais said. “We share more services than anywhere else in state.”
Lake George was the second village in the state to eliminate its police force, and relies solely now on Warren County Sheriff’s Department and state police patrols.
Another award was for starting the Greater Glens Falls Trolley System that carries people between Lake George and Glens Falls during the summer months. In addition to tourists, it’s a primary mode of transportation for many seasonal employees who staff local restaurants and hotels, which are essential to healthy tourism industry.
A third award was for working with Student Connection, a program that brings many foreign exchange students to Lake George, filling much-needed hospitality- and tourism-related jobs each summer.
Lastly, the village was recognized for creation of the Lake George Recreation Center, which was paid for strictly by grants, no local funding, and built with volunteer labor.
Things haven’t always come easy, though. For example, it took Blais a long time to convince property owners about the benefits of creating a lakefront walkway. “People said, ‘You want to put that in back of my business? I’ve got docks there with boats on it. People will steal boats, damage docks and damage my property’,” he said.
But it’s turned out to be a highly popular feature with visitors and brings foot traffic to numerous lakefront businesses.
“There’s been resistance any time we ever tried to do anything here that involved change,” Blais said.
However, he never quit and has never been one to rest on his laurels. Just a few weeks ago he oversaw the first meeting of a new Winter Task Force designed to create new activities for people to enjoy when visiting Lake George from December to March. The goal is to specifically give guests things to do when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, and there’s little snow or ice for outdoor festivities.
“We want to make sure there are stores and restaurants open,” Blais said. “We’re looking at a whole wide array of things like an indoor skating rink, and drive- or walk-through light show. We should always keep looking at something new.”