Lake George mayor becomes state's longest-serving

Joe Mahoney Lake George Mayor Bob Blais, after 48 years in elected office, says he looks forward to going to village hall each morning.

LAKE GEORGE — Just as the tourists keep flocking to this upstate village each summer, local voters have made it a habit to line up behind Bob Blais — so many times that he is now New York's longest-tenured mayor.

That wasn't the plan when his string of 48 consecutive years as mayor began in 1971.

"I thought back then that I would get in there and we would clean up the village, give it more of a family atmosphere, deal with some of the honky-tonk image that it had then, and that would be it," Blais, now 82 years old, said in an interview at village hall.

Blais, in discussing his extraordinary longevity in elected office, offered a tutorial of the strategies and hard work that goes into keeping a vacation destination community popular in an age where people have an abundance of options for their time and disposable dollars. Having been elected mayor in all 13 runs, he is now planning to retire after serving two years of the four-year term he won March 19.

During his tenure, Lake George has shed what had been its image as a rowdy party town with garish lighting. Last October, a national newspaper, USA Today, named it the top destination in New York for a weekend visit.

The village's greatest asset is its lake, beaches and parks, and Blais and his team at village hall have made it their goal to provide visitors with a wide range of options so they have won't run out of enjoyable ways to spend their time.

"Lake George is a different animal because of the changing of the seasons, and how that brings about a change in the number of people you are hosting," he said. "That means that our infrastructure has to be sized for that day in July when all 4,200 hotel rooms are full and we have to be at our best."

He added, "People think we are at our busiest in the summer. But we are busiest in the winter and spring, planning for the summer, when we know we are going to be inundated with all these tourists."

When it comes to organizing activities aimed at drawing big crowds, the mayor's boots are on the ground, from the conception stage through the execution. Planning to come to the annual Elvis Presley Music Festival at the kickoff weekend of summer? You're likely to encounter Blais. Heading to the week-long motorcycle rally known as the Americade? Blais will be doing his part to make sure things run smoothly for the thousands of guests.

While trying to be the village's ambassador to visitors is an important role, Blais said he remains mindful of the concerns of local residents.

"The little lady who lives on the back streets who came here with her husband to retire couldn't care less if our restrooms are clean every day or if there are fireworks every Thursday night, and matter of fact she hates fireworks because it disturbs her cat," Blais said. "Fortunately, I have very good people cleaning the streets and plowing here. They are the ones who make us look good, and we just formulate the policy and try to keep them well-paid."

The village, out of its own coffers, sponsors a weekly fireworks display in summer months as well as a concert series along the lake at Charles Wood Park, a green space jointly owned by the village and Warren County.

Lake George falls within the state legislative district of Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury. She has advocated for North Country tourism at the statehouse and for projects important to the village's future, such as state support for a waste water treatment plant Blais would like to see completed in two years.

She attributes the mayor's staying power to his knack for candid communication and his eagerness to keep residents informed about the rationale for his agenda.

"He is such a great promoter," Little said. "If you're with him and he starts talking about Lake George, how could you not like it? He is always very clear in the way he talks."

Blais is a native of Saratoga Springs and a registered Republican, though village elections are non-partisan. His first Lake George job came one summer at a bottling plant while he attended Boston University. He later got a job on the police force, working nights. His first assignment was to go to the shops and introduce himself to the storekeepers.

Eventually, almost everyone knew the affable cop, who stood 6-feet-6-inches. Working several jobs at the time to support his young family, he decided to cast his lot in local politics by challenging the then-incumbent mayor in 1971.

These days, if someone enters village hall with a gripe, he invites them into his office for a chat. He said he makes every effort to let them know their issues will be addressed.

But not everyone becomes an immediate supporter, he noted. Decades ago, he recalled, a local businessman accused him of corruption without any evidence. Several years later, when the man died, Blais said he was the first person in line at the funeral home. When the businessman's sons mentioned they were surprised to see him, the mayor recalled quipping, "I just wanted to make sure he was really in there (the urn). "

Blais said he is pleased with how the village has evolved and established its own destination brand. "Some people think we should be like Woodstock, Vermont, but we're not Woodstock," he said.

Now, the main focus is to let families and other guests know that there are plenty of ways to enjoy their vacation time after they spend a day at the nearby Great Escape Splashwater Kingdom amusement park or take a swim in the lake's public beaches, he said.

Asked how he plans to spend his retirement once he hangs up his mayor's hat, Blais said he looks forward to offering a helping hand at village events.

"Along with the promoters, I started most of the special events that are in Lake George," he said. "I'd like to continue somehow working with those folks."

He added: "And I'd like to bring in even more events."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com