Frustrations with Ballard's Beach Resort are mounting on Block Island in the wake of a brawl that made national headlines.
At a Thursday meeting of the New Shoreham Town Council that drew an overflow crowd, residents aired their concerns about safety — and the island's reputation — for close to two hours. Some called for the popular beachfront bar to be shut down, which received enthusiastic applause.
"This island would be a better place, I hate to say it," said Brian Baker, who told the council he's been coming to Block Island since 1954.
Council members indicated that they, too, want to take action — and voted unanimously to hold a "show cause" hearing for Ballard's on Aug. 22. At that hearing, the town could potentially suspend the bar's liquor and entertainment licenses, or impose other sanctions like fines.
First Warden Andre Boudreau urged anyone who was an eyewitness to the chaos on Monday to email town clerk Millie McGinnes, since that testimony might be needed as evidence at the hearing.
Councilman Keith Stover indicated that the evidence is also likely to include call logs showing how many times the police and the volunteer rescue squad have responded to incidents at Ballard's since May.
Backlash follows fight at Reggae Fest; dramatic arrests on ferry
While it's not the first time this summer that concerns about Ballard's have surfaced, this week's mayhem may have been a breaking point.
The bar drew a large crowd for its annual Reggae Fest on Monday, when many Rhode Islanders had the day off work for Victory Day and temperatures on the mainland topped 90 degrees. Troopers responded to a "disturbance" at Ballard's at around 6:30 p.m., and arrested a 30-year-old Providence man for disorderly conduct, according to the Rhode Island State Police.
A video that was widely shared on social media shows a fight breaking out in the outdoor bar area, in which at least one punch gets thrown, and a man is thrown to the ground. (It's unclear whether the video shows the fight that prompted a police response or a different scuffle.) In another video that has been circulating online, security guards appear to be separating three women who are pummeling one another.
Later, at around 9:30 p.m, a fight broke out on the Block Island Ferry. Seven people from Providence and Pawtucket, age 20 to 37, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Two were hospitalized with minor injuries. Videos of police officers leaping onto the ferry from a Coast Guard tender made national news.
Steve Filippi, the owner of Ballard's, said in a Tuesday interview with WJAR's Gene Valicenti that it was unfair to blame Reggae Fest for the brawl on the ferry.
"We had a very peaceful day ... it was very laid back, there were no issues," he said.
Some community members suggested on Thursday that it might be time to rethink how the Block Island Ferry operates.
Currently, visitors who book a round-trip ticket don't need to specify when they'll be returning to the mainland and can just show up at the dock. That means that later ferries tend to be considerably more crowded and rowdier.
On Monday, the large number of people trying to get on the last boat of the night prompted Interstate Navigation to add an extra, unscheduled run – which was where the fight broke out.
'Responsible for the terrible reputation that we’re getting'
Filippi is running unopposed for a seat on the New Shoreham Town Council. He did not attend Thursday's meeting, where a number of islanders singled him out for criticism.
"He’s absolutely responsible for everything's that happened," said John Willis. "He also is responsible for the terrible reputation that we’re getting."
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Those complaints were echoed by a diverse group of seasonal and year-round residents – some of them barely old enough to drink, others needing a walker to get to the podium.
"I'm 78 years old. This is my home. I go back to the original settlers," said Monica Hull Shea. "What Ballard's has been allowed to get away with is appalling."
A young woman named Audrey Davis said that she works at Rebecca's, a cafe near Ballard's, and routinely deals with "over-served" day trippers who tell her that they got into Ballard's despite being underage. Often, she said, she encounters teenage girls who can barely stand up.
"Something clearly has to change, because over and over again, we see over-served girls passing out or laying for hours in our yard," she said.
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Attempts to reach Filippi on Thursday evening were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman said Ballard's had no comment.
Only one attendee, Steve Brunelle, spoke up in defense of Ballard's.
"Ballard’s is not the demon that you’re making them out to be," he said, noting that underage drinking is often the result of young people bringing in their own alcohol in backpacks.
Ballard's has a scanner that can detect fake IDs, Brunelle said. But under Rhode Island law, the resort can't prevent the public from using the portion of the beach that's below the high tide line, which creates more opportunities for people to sneak in.
"Everyone needs to stop the name-calling, the accusations," Brunelle said, as audience members booed.
Unconfirmed rumors fueling fire
Calls to crack down on Ballard's have been steadily building ever since the July Fourth weekend, when rumor spread that an underage victim had been sexually assaulted at the resort.
Though it was referenced more than once at Thursday's meeting, that rumor has not been officially confirmed.
In July, New Shoreham Town Manager Maryanne Crawford said the state police were "investigating a report of an alleged sexual assault reported in the town on July Fourth." She did not specify where the assault had allegedly taken place.
The state police have repeatedly declined to say whether the alleged assault took place at Ballard's, citing the open investigation. The New Shoreham Police Department has not responded to calls and emails. No authorities have said whether the alleged victim was underage.
Meanwhile, the Block Island Times reported in July that there was "enough anecdotal evidence to lend credence to the rumor" there had been two separate sexual assaults over the July 4th weekend. One allegedly involved an underage victim and occurred "at a commercial venue," but the victim declined to file a police report and press charges, according to the Times.
Asked about the investigation during his Tuesday interview with WJAR, Filippi responded: "I don't really want to comment on it, but I can tell you this, Gene: No one's been arrested, no one's been charged with anything at Ballard's, you know what I mean?"
Some islanders who attended Thursday's meeting argued that Ballard's should have been shut down after July 4th.
Town solicitor James Callaghan explained that the town doesn't know the results of the investigation, or even whether the investigation is moving forward. Since it hasn't been established that there was an incident at Ballard's on July 4th, the town can't take action.
Fight comes in wake of underage drinking busts; leads to concert cancellation
Meanwhile, Ballard's has continued to face scrutiny.
In late July, New Shoreham police conducted a sting operation by sending teenagers to order drinks at a local bars. Ballard's was one of six establishments that failed the "compliance check," and did not ask the minor for an ID. It was one of only two bars that failed again when the same test was carried out the next day.
Given the amount of controversy surrounding Ballard's, Filippi's decision to run for Town Council has raised some eyebrows, but the deadline for anyone else to appear on the ballot has passed. On Thursday, some residents questioned how the town will hold Ballard's accountable if issues arise next summer, when Filippi is likely to have a seat on the council.
"We’re going to be the laughingstock of the nation," said Andy Transue.
Filippi is the brother of former House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, who was a partial owner of Ballard's before a legal battle over the business split the family into two factions.
At the start of Thursday's meeting, councilwoman Martha Ball announced that Ballard's had cancelled a "Roots and Rhythm" concert that was scheduled for Aug. 21, in light of recent events.
The council later voted to recommend that Walter 'Chip' Anderson be appointed as the town's interim police chief, effective Monday, while it continues to search for a permanent chief.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Block Island brawl prompts Ballard's backlash; hearing for bar