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Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater's restaurants says new Census Bureau tool is a good starting point for expanding or starting a business. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

This research tool can help your small business

The U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting economic data for more than 200 years. But that data has been difficult to access for the average person who wants to open a new business or expand an existing one.

During a workshop during the “Power Conference: Women Doing Business” in Bethesda last week, U.S. Census Bureau data specialist Nesreen Khashan said she often gives small-business owners instructions on how to use census data but found the information is difficult for the average person to understand.

That may be changing.

On Sept. 9, the Census Bureau is scheduled to release a tool that will help small-business owners get the data they need.

Currently accessible in “soft launch mode” under a hidden tab on the Census Bureau’s website, the Census Business Builder gives business owners data at the state, county, city and neighborhood levels, from average consumer spending to housing information. There is also a feature to look at competing businesses in the area.

While a lot of this information was available before, Khashan said it was geared toward “power users” — large companies with research firms at their disposal or grant writers who are used to digging through the data. People who are used to accessing the raw data the old fashioned way can still do that, she said.

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Thomas Rhodes, owner of Zeke’s Coffee (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Thomas Rhodes, owner of Zeke’s Coffee, which has a shop and a grocery store in Baltimore, said he uses less sophisticated methods to make business decisions.

“I just use my gut,” he said.

For data collection, Rhodes does “a cup count.” He’ll count how many people walk by a certain block carrying a coffee cup in a given time period; it doesn’t matter where the coffee is from. The higher the count, the better the location for a coffee shop.

“That just means I have to get them in my shop,” said Rhodes, adding that he’s not worried about oversaturating the market.

Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater’s restaurant chain which has a handful of locations in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, said the data in the new census bureau tool “is helpful for about the first 30 percent of the decision making” for his business.

“We need to know a neighborhood much more intimately. Mostly do they need and want us there,” Atwater said in an email. Then he looks at what sites are available, public transportation, parking and sunlight. Some information gathering requires walking around the neighborhood.

“The (web) site is a good start,” he said.

The Census Bureau plans to expand the tool by making it more tablet and mobile friendly. The tool may also include features to let users include their own data.

The Census Bureau also has a prototype in the works for a Chamber of  Commerce edition of the tool that will include boundaries on the map based on the jurisdictions of area chambers. That prototype was supposed to be released on Aug. 12 but has been delayed.