April 12, 2010; Worcester Business Journal | This argument has been replayed in cities and towns around the nation. Do nonprofits providing services to the poor damage the business vitality of downtowns? The Worcester Business Journal apparently editorialized against the location of a Planned Parenthood clinic on Main Street in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, contending that the clinic “would send the signal that social-service agencies are welcome in the downtown when what the downtown needs is new businesses that can bring consumers here from throughout North Central Massachusetts to shop.”

The owner of a beauty salon believes that a welfare office on Main Street deters upscale customers from the suburbs coming to her downtown shop. Some other storeowners think differently. The proprietor of a local sandwich place points out that his business comes from those clients of the service agencies. He points out that for Fitchburg, like many other small city downtowns, their business is the presence of many government and nonprofit offices.

In reality, strip malls and megamalls have killed many downtowns, not the nonprofits. But nonprofits and the poor people they serve—generally the poor people who live in town, not in the tony ‘burbs—are easy to blame. Worcester Polytech professor Rob Krueger cites examples of healthy downtowns in European cities combining retail and services and asks, why there and not here? Krueger also notes that many government and service agencies are good employers, paying middle-class wages, especially in the social work world, that sustain families, that bring people into the middle class, that provide livable incomes to the families who are more likely to live in Fitchburg than in the much more affluent towns of Townsend and Ashby.

One hopes that other nonprofits stand up for the downtown service providers against this all-too-common blaming-the-nonprofit excuse for troubled downtown retail conditions.—Rick Cohen