NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. – For many residents of Block Island, the brawl on Monday at Ballard’s Beach Resort that led to eight arrests there and on the ferry and put at least one person in the hospital was the last straw.
John Cotter, who spends his summers on Block Island and lives about half a mile away from Ballard’s, said Ballard’s is run like a “beach club for drunks.”
“You can go by on your average Friday or Saturday and watch people stagger out there... It’s not a pretty sight,” Cotter told the Globe in an interview. “It’s the kind of thing that’s pretty disgraceful.”
“Block Island isn’t a place to get drunk and throw up,” he added.
The resort, located steps away from where vacationers disembark from the Block Island Ferry, has long been known as a place to party. The entertainment venue offers a hotel, tiki bars, cabanas, beer pong tables, a private beach adjacent to the public one, and oversized cocktails served in whole pineapples. It often hosts music festivals and concerts that draw large crowds.
Ballard’s opened on Water Street as a family-friendly restaurant in 1952.
“I’ve been coming here since 1954. Our big night out was Ballard’s,” Brian Baker, a resident of Connecticut and who has owned a home on Block Island for 30 years, said at an emergency town council meeting on Thursday. “We started coming as kids — family night, lobster night. This is a travesty.”
Ballard’s is currently owned by Steven Filippi, a well-connected local businessman whose estranged brother, Blake Filippi, until recently served as House Minority Leader and the Republican state congressman for the district. As Ballard’s grew from a family restaurant to popular entertainment hub, it gained a reputation for serving alcohol to minors and ignoring crude behavior and binge drinking.
“People were binge drinking and there were the accompanying arguments, passed out people, yelling at kids, staggering toward the ocean, and overall drunkenness that comes with that,” one person wrote on the travel review site Tripadvisor a decade ago, in August 2012.
Jessica Willi, the executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, told the Globe that there feels like a “lack of control” on the island right now because of several negative incidents so far this summer.
“I’ve received calls from parents saying they don’t want to bring their kids to Block Island because they don’t think it’s safe,” she said Friday. “And then we have to reassure them that it is ok to come here.”
In addition to the brawl earlier this week, incidents reportedly at Ballard’s so far this year have included underage drinking and an alleged sexual assault, which the Rhode Island State Police and the Attorney General’s Office began investigating in July. The alleged victim, who was reportedly under age, declined to file a police report or press charges. On Thursday Brian Hodge, a spokesman with the attorney general’s office, said the investigation into a sexual assault on the island is ongoing.
On Monday, the resort hosted a free reggae music festival that started at noon and ended at 6 p.m., when alcohol sales stopped. Steven Filippi told the Globe in an interview that 1,500 to 2,00 people attended the event, and no violent incidents took place on his property.
“We’ve done this five or six years now,” Filippi said on Tuesday. “It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary . . . There weren’t any incidents or anything like that here at Ballard’s.”
But cell phone video recorded at the event and shared with the Globe and on social media showed at least one fight during the reggae festival, and in interviews witnesses described others. And in an interview with WPRO’s Gene Valicenti on Wednesday, Filippi said: “There’s been one arrest all year at Ballard’s for a fight and that was on Monday. For the amount of people that come through Ballard’s in the summer, that’s very, very little.... Everyone had a good time. There were no serious issues. Like no one left in an ambulance.”
“What happened on the ferry, I have no control over,” he added. “I don’t run the ferry. I don’t do the security on the ferry. And I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame on Ballard’s if it happened somewhere else.”
Bruce Darelius of Pawtucket told the Globe the scene at Ballard’s on Monday was “complete chaos.” He recorded one fight on his phone, but said “there were three or four before that.”
”We just wanted to listen to the music,” he said. “I think it was overcrowded. It made it uncomfortable at times.”
Later that night, as hundreds of festival-goers crammed onto ferries to go back to the Rhode Island mainland, more fighting broke out, leading to several arrests and one hospitalization. Members of the Coast Guard had to board one ferry, the M.V. Carol Jean, in open water in response to requests for help.
Days later, Filippi announced that he was canceling the Roots and Rhythm festival, which had been scheduled for Aug. 21.
Filippi did not respond to the Globe’s requests for additional comments.
On Thursday night, the New Shoreham Town Council held an emergency meeting to address the incidents. During open comments, nearly two dozen people spoke out against the behavior at Ballard’s, alleging noise complaints, serving alcohol to minors, overcrowding, and other “appalling” issues.
“Everyone is entitled to make money for their business,” said Baker, whose family used to go to Ballard’s in the 1950s. “But the business should be dignified.”
Monica Rales told the town council that she and her friends hopped the fence to get into Ballard’s on a recent night, and said it was overcrowded. She left shortly after. “It looked like the perfect setting for something bad to happen,” she said.
In response to questions from the Globe, Councilman Sven Risom and Councilman Andre Boudreau released a joint statement calling the situation “shocking” and “saddening.”
“As a Council, we are committed to making Block Island a healthy community and a wonderful place to live and visit and are united in that goal,” read the statement.
In July, an undercover sting found that Ballard’s and five other area bars were serving alcohol to minors. At a town council meeting after the sting, Filippi said he spent $3,500 for an ID scanner and confiscated 20 fake IDs during that weekend. Still residents and business owners voiced their concerns over underage drinking, open containers of alcohol on the street, and public drunkenness. One resident called for larger bars like Ballard’s to increase their security presence. Others criticized Filippi promoting large alcoholic beverages in their advertising campaigns.
“You’re not really focusing on the problem,” Filippi said during the July 25 council meeting. “It’s just a blame game.”
“We’re dealing with 18-year olds, 19-year olds that come off the ferry, backpacks in hand, and go around the island, and they drink,” said Filippi. “They try to come onto Ballard’s, they try to go to other establishments. That’s one of our biggest issues.”
In Providence, the city’s liquor licensing board oversees bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Bars that have repeated incidents of violence, fighting, serving minors, or over-serving customers are subject to fines or may even be temporarily shut down. Public meetings are held at which the liquor licensing board can set parameters for reopening, such as requiring added security.
“Anytime that public trust is shaken, I’d want a public meeting on the record,” said Dylan Conley, the chairman of Providence’s liquor licensing board. “It’s so much about public trust. Even if the licensee hasn’t done something wrong... We don’t just say nothing and let it go.”
But New Shoreham has a year-round population of less than 1,200 people. The town council also serves as the liquor licensing board, the town clerk, Millie McGinnes, told the Globe. And Steve Filippi is running, unopposed, for a seat on the council.
“I’m a little worried about the timing on all of this... We have election day coming up and Steve Filippi is running unopposed for town council,” said Andy Transue during Thursday’stown council meeting. “How hard is it going to be for you folks next summer to censor your fellow councilor?”
Jennifer McGee, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Business Regulations, told the Globe on Friday that the state acts as an appellate agency in these matters, but does not normally step in to handle matters on their own without the local liquor licensing board.
On Thursday, the Town Council turned to residents to be “part of the solution” and asked them to email videos, photos, and statements to McGinnes. Submissions may be used to select witnesses who the town’s attorney may present to the liquor licensing board.
“I’ve witnessed brawls at Ballard’s... The only fights I’ve ever seen on the island,” Michael Aaron Capps, a hairdresser and makeup artist who also lives in New York, told the town council Thursday. “When do we hold people accountable for literally trashing the island? From my standpoint, it’s time. I hope you move to act on it.”
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