For one weekend a year, Justin “Gator” Gates finds himself mayor of City Hall.
The 34-year-old Glens Falls man presides over a full-sized cooler brimming with beer, a large open-air tent and a veritable settlement of campsites that seem to proliferate around the shady grove he first selected on the shore of Fish Creek four years ago. His duties as mayor?
“Maintain orderly … ” he starts before being playfully interrupted.
“Chaos,” blurts Joe Johnson, 40, of San Diego, one of the many people swinging by for a visit Thursday afternoon.
It’s Phish weekend at Lee’s Park, and the revelry at the sprawling campground is summed up well by the gathering around Gates. Diehard fans of the jam band playing three shows at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this week flock to Lee’s because it offers them a friendly place to let loose before the concerts, a safe bus ride to the shows and an all-night party afterward.
Living locally, Gates once went to Saratoga Spa State Park before shows. But after a serious crackdown by police several years ago, he decided it would be easier — and more enjoyable — to grab a spot at Lee’s, about five miles away from the venue.
“We make new friends all the time,” he said of the spot he’s religiously returned to every year since 2011. “It gets bigger every year.”
Katie Doe is among roughly 15 people that now gravitate toward City Hall whenever Phish is at SPAC. For the bikini-clad, 21-year-old New Jersey woman, there’s no better place to unwind before and after the shows.
“This is the highlight of my summer,” she beamed, her thumb pressed over the tube of a beer bong. “And I [expletive] mean that.”
There’s no reserving campsites at Lee’s, so it’s first-come, first-served. Choice campsites like the ones near the sole dock for swimming on Fish Creek are usually snapped up by fans long before the first day of the concert.
Campers like Gates started arriving Tuesday. At least one Phish fan even arrived Monday, catching longtime campground manager Burt Mitline somewhat off guard.
“I told him I didn’t even have the registry going yet,” he said.
Richard Lyman, 28, of Ballston Spa, was among a handful of campers arriving Tuesday who also gutted out a series of powerful thunderstorms that hit the region this week.
“This is my summer vacation,” said Lyman, who works as a cook in downtown Saratoga Springs. “We came as early as we could.”
Licensed by the state as concert camping, Lee’s brings the experience of an overnight festival that is lacking during Phish shows at SPAC, a place that evicts fans long before midnight. With a wristband, campers are given free reign of the property as long as they abide by several basic rules enacted for their safety.
“Here, it’s like we’re all one big, happy family,” Lyman said.
Lee’s has even developed a Shakedown Street — slang for an open market where everything from glass pipes to gyros are sold. Small campfires are allowed on the premises and noise is generally acceptable at most hours, provided it’s kept to a dull, respectful roar.
Mitline’s wife, Dottie, operates a shuttle service of about a dozen buses that transport the estimated 3,000 campers between the concert and the campgrounds. Started about three years ago and in coordination with Live Nation — the promoter of rock performances at SPAC — the shuttles help significantly reduce the number of vehicles leaving the campground and, more importantly, reduce the risk of an inebriated driver getting behind the wheel.
“The buses keep people safe,” she said.
Many campers seem grateful for the refuge Lee’s provides them. Though Mitline strictly enforces the few rules he imposes on people — such as prohibiting the sale of alcohol among campers or the use of nitrous tanks — he’s a figure embraced by the people who recognize him from years past.
Rabbi Shu Eliouson paused from a jam session at his camp to embrace Mitline as he walked by. The Israeli national, camping with PHISHalom — a group that extends the Jewish tradition of hospitality to fans of the band — was quick to recognize the good vibe he got from camping at Lee’s
“I’d say you’ve got some pretty good energy here,” he told Mitline. “You made the vessel, we poured the wine.”