NILES -- Back to the future.
At least that's how Tim Batton describes his return to the Ferry Street Resource Center, the nonprofit referral and social services agency he helped jump-start seven years ago. It's an apt description.
Batton, 57, was named interim director of the organization in the wake of the recent resignation of Lisa Busby, the agency's first and only director since its founding in 2005. She gave no reason for resigning, nor did center board members Diane Bass and Jeanette Pearson, who gave up their seats after Busby's exit.
Although Batton wouldn't offer an explanation for the resignations, he promised center officials will make every attempt to make the best of it.
"Any time you go through a transition, you're going to have folks who want to buy into the new direction and folks that don't want to buy into it," he said. "Board turnover isn't always an unhealthy thing."
Identifying the resignations as part of "a natural transition," he emphasized the center is stable and will continue to offer the same services as before.
Batton was serving as director of the Greater Niles Community Development Corp., the organization founded in the mid-1990s to upgrade housing along the North Fifth Street corridor, when he was called upon to help launch the Ferry Street center. Drug deals in the neighborhood surrounding the old Ferry Street School, the one-room schoolhouse opened in 1867 to educate black children, had become so frequent that the neighborhood was targeted for improvement. Then funding turned up through an ongoing community development block grant.
But the economic downtown that first presented itself in 2007 altered the center's role. Tightening budgets saw the Michigan Works office close in Niles and the Department of Human Services move out of Niles' South County Courthouse.
As a result, Niles residents accustomed to receiving services from those agencies were required to drive to Dowagiac or Benton Harbor. Batton said the Ferry Street facility was tapped to fill the gap.
"We don't turn anyone away. ... If we can't deliver the service, we refer the client to an agency that perhaps can," he said.
Other services are provided as well such as a basic adult education program that convenes three times per week. Batton said computers, too, are available, allowing unemployed residents to remotely recertify for benefits instead of having to drive to the nearest Michigan Works office in Dowagiac. So is a fax service.
"Something as simple as faxing a document can make a big difference," Batton said. "Other places offer faxing but they charge a fee. We do it at no cost."
Although Niles Community Development Director Juan Ganum had no involvement in Batton's appointment as interim director -- the decision was made by the center's board -- it's clear, Ganum said, that he's qualified. Not only was the GNCDC responsible for renovating and/or building 18 affordable houses that were sold to low- to moderate-income families, but Batton had a hand as well in removing the siding that once concealed historical downtown storefronts.
Considered unsightly by many, the siding was eliminated through a project known as the "Big Brown Takedown'' after Batton discovered funding for the project could be obtained from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
"Tim was integral to that whole project. ... He led the charge," Ganum said.
He'll also lead the charge at the resource center, at least for now, after serving the last few years as director of a pair of assisted living facilities in Niles. Batton said he jumped at the chance to return to the Ferry Street post after reading about Busby's resignation.
"There was no doubt in my mind," he said.
Staff writer Lou Mumford: