NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — From the back row of the fast ferry to Block Island on a recent weekday morning, Steve Filippi could look out the windows on the port side and see the beach resort that caused him no end of trouble last year.
It doesn’t look like much has changed at Ballard’s Beach Resort. Even the tiki bars are back out on the beach for the summer, despite state regulators’ insistence that he lacks permission for them.
But Filippi says things will be different at his venue this year. More family-oriented, instead of the alcohol-fueled party atmosphere many associate with the resort. A new emphasis on security after a series of incidents last summer, which culminated in a chaotic music festival in early August, multiple arrests on the ferry, and a battle with the town of New Shoreham. Above all, a new relationship with people on Block Island, around 75 percent of whom, he estimates, don’t like him.
In an interview, Filippi said he is looking toward the future after last summer’s wakeup call.
“I think we definitely could have done more,” Filippi said after walking off the ferry and heading toward Ballard’s. “We could have had more security. There’s no excuses here. I still have no idea how that happened. I still think about that at night.”
But officials, visitors, and residents wonder: How much will actually change at the Block Island mainstay?
In September, the state Coastal Resources Management Council told Filippi he didn’t have permission to have canopies and tiki bars on the beach at Ballard’s, and needed to take them down. CRMC regulations on shoreline structures are intended to protect the environment and to protect public access, and they apply even to privately owned property within a certain distance of the water.
The cabanas and tiki bars were clearly visible from the ferry in mid-June. Some of the cabanas, which can cost as much as $999 to rent for a summer weekend, were outfitted with “Don’t Tread On Me” cornhole boards. A few of the tiki bars had speakers to blast music.
Ballard’s actually applied to the CRMC in December 2022 for the tiki bars for this summer. But the town of New Shoreham objected; some officials even questioned Ballard’s ownership of the beach. By February, Ballard’s withdrew its application. Filippi said property surveys show Ballard’s owns the whole beach, and his lawyer has described the questions about ownership as “malicious.”
In a volley of letters in April and May, Ballard’s attorney, Dean J. Wagner, argued that the resort has had seasonal tiki bars on the beach since before the CRMC was created, so they are grandfathered in and do not require CRMC approval. Wagner also argued the tiki bars wouldn’t need CRMC approval anyway because they’re temporary structures that don’t pose a hazard to the coastal environment. The CRMC’s deputy director, Laura Miguel, stated in a May 8 letter that the CRMC “does not agree with your conclusion that the tiki bars placed on the beach do not require CRMC approval.”
The issues with the cabanas and other items that CRMC raised in September 2022 were never definitively resolved, although the current enforcement activity has focused primarily on the tiki bars, according to CRMC. Agency spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said CRMC’s legal counsel has contacted Ballard’s attorney seeking more evidence that the tiki bars are “grandfathered in.”
In a lengthy interview with the Globe, while wearing a sweatshirt with the Ballard’s logo right over his heart, Filippi acknowledged the beach resort’s reputation as an out-of-control party bar, though he characterized it as unfair.
He said he takes responsibility for some issues that occurred in 2022, but said Ballard’s often takes the blame for larger island problems.
He pointed to an an alleged sexual assault at Ballard’s over July 4th weekend in 2022, which sparked investigations by the Rhode Island State Police and Attorney General’s office but did not result in charges. The victim declined to file a police report or press changes.
“If it happened, prosecute the guy,” said Filippi. “But everyone was like ‘There was a rape at Ballard’s. It’s out of control. Shut down Ballard’s.’”
Weeks later, two police sting operations found Ballard’s was among a short list of island bars that willfully served alcohol to a teenage informant. The stings were to help “raise awareness” that underage drinking was rampant on the island, but weren’t meant to take action against establishments. Filippi said it “looked terrible” for Ballard’s. He purchased a pricey scanner to weed out fake IDs, but said he never had a chance to defend his business because there was no hearing.
A few weeks after that, on Aug. 8, 2022, a free reggae festival got out of hand.
Guests hopped the fence to get into the festival. Fights broke out at the venue, which led to one arrest, while chaos spilled out into town and on a late-night Block Island Ferry, where Coast Guard members boarded the ferry in open water to intervene. Seven more people were arrested for brawling.
“They overreacted,” Filippi said of the authorities. He said he did not know if the people who were fighting had been served at Ballard’s. “There was a fight out in the middle of the ocean and that’s somehow my fault? That’s not right.”
Crowd control was an issue, Filippi conceded. But Filippi also blamed the “types” of people the festival attracted. “The wrong type… who wouldn’t just come to Block Island to have a good time,” he said, adding that the DJ brought “a lot of his followers.”
On Aug. 22, 2022, the New Shoreham Town Council suspended Ballard’s liquor and entertainment licenses for two weeks. The suspensions would have lasted through Labor Day, impacting Ballard’s during one of its most-lucrative weekends, but Filippi appealed to the state and was able to reopen the following night.
But impact of the events carried over after the summer season had ended. In November, he lost his unopposed bid for a town council seat, earning just 92 votes, while more than 1,050 people wrote-in alternative candidates.
“Business reputation destroyed, my reputation destroyed,” he said. “You know, the truth is, we made a mistake.”
Last summer’s events were “personally traumatic,” he added. “Not just for me, but for my wife, too… My kids shouldn’t turn on the TV and see a video of me. That’s not the life we want to live.”
Critics say that Filippi had an opportunity to make amends with the town, but didn’t take it.
When Ballard’s license was suspended “he could have come out and said to his fellow islanders that he was sorry and that this would never happen again. This could have been water under the bridge,” said Steve Miller, who has lived on the island full-time since 1991 and has a friendly relationship with Filippi. “But he couldn’t be humble enough to take the punishment. Now there’s a lot of Type A retirees who live here full-time who have an ax to grind with him, challenging him on his [property] lines and finding any other reason to hold him accountable.”
Miller’s boat is docked about 100 feet away from Ballard’s front door.
“The amount of pushing, shoving, punching, screaming, vomiting, urinating, and number of rescue calls there are at Ballard’s — and that spill out of Ballard’s — is staggering. It’s all worsened over the years,” he said.
Filippi needs to “rethink the business model” since the “current one does not fit on this island,” he added.
Supporters of Ballard’s say it’s still the family-friendly destination that it’s always been, going back to 1956 when it was opened by Filippi’s late father. It simply had a few unfortunate events last summer.
Rick Simone, a Rhode Island hospitality industry leader who is a friend of Filippi’s, said he took his family to Ballard’s just “five or six days” after last summer’s reggae festival.
“We go there with my kids every year and we’re surrounded by other families,” he said. He called Ballard’s a “great business” and noted that it hosts other events “all the time.” And Filippi “goes out of his way” to reinvest in the resort and support local charities, he said.
On a recent afternoon in mid-June, First Warden Keith Stover, who acts as the council president, sat at an outdoor patio at Ballard’s and watched the ferries coming in and out of Old Harbor. He called last year’s incidents “a crazy summer.”
Filippi “is not an un-feeling guy. He’s passionate about his business,” said Stover. “But if you ran a place like that and had similar situations happen, you’d think: ‘I’d better get my s--t together.’”
The summer season traditionally kicks off during the July 4th weekend. Until then, it’s “too early to tell what this summer might bring for Ballard’s,” said Stover.
Filippi told the Globe that hasn’t spoken to any of the council members, who also act as the town’s licensing board, since he and they agreed on a new round of restrictions for Ballard’s last fall. In the agreement, Filippi dismissed the appeals pending against the actions on Ballard’s liquor and entertainment licenses in court and to state regulators. He agreed to hire police details to be stationed at the resort on weekends and holidays. Timothy Lee, a retired police chief in Dartmouth, Mass., and former Providence police captain, was hired as Ballard’s new director of security.
The agreement also banned Filippi from hosting a music festival again, limiting him to one band playing outdoors at a time and no more than two acts in a single day.
This year’s July 4 festivities include live music and an age restriction: only adults 21 and older will be allowed in. He’s also charging a cover – $25 per person – for the first time.
Though Filippi said he has taken “most of the alcohol” out of their marketing campaigns, newsletters promoting this year’s July 4 event, which call it the “hottest event of the summer,” feature Ballard’s signature Mudslides, massive jello shots, booze-filled pineapples, and their famous daiquiris in yard-long souvenir cups. They also promote live music until 10 p.m.
“I’m confident we’re going to have a good summer,” said Filippi, though he also said he wants to avoid a repeat of 2022. “We’ve got to prove to the police chief, the town manager, and the town council that we’re serious.”
But Eli Holmes, a photographer on the island and longtime vacationer, said they cannot see how Ballard’s can turn over a new leaf “when it’s the same cabanas, the same tiki bars, and the same out-of-control people.”
“How can you say you’re changing when everything looks the same?” asked Holmes. “I would be surprised if we don’t have another episode at Ballard’s in the next year or two.”
Though rumors are spreading through the island that Filippi might sell Ballard’s, he told the Globe he’s here to stay. The cabanas and tiki bars apparently are, too, but that’s a subject for another day. Right now, Filippi wants to talk about how Ballard’s is changing for the better.
“We’re not going anywhere. You can’t shut us down. But we have to get along,” said Filippi. “I don’t want one summer to mess everything up. You can’t throw in the towel over one summer.”