At the corner of a small commercial strip across Route 40 from the Normandy Shopping Center in Ellicott City, Tere's Latin Market has existed for the last four years as a local resource for members of the Latin American community in Howard County.
It's a place where they can buy calling cards with special rates to their home countries, Spanish-language music, spicy peppers not found in many county stores and warm, Mexican-inspired meals from the deli in the back.
Tough economic times, however, have made keeping the business afloat more difficult, said owners Luis and Teresa Carino, so they've decided to branch out – into selling alcohol.
The Jessup couple, originally from Mexico, has applied for a county liquor license to sell beer and wine in their store, a request that is currently pending before the county's Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board.
Having a beer with a warm meal is a tradition in many Latin American countries, Teresa Carino said, and customers have often asked her why she doesn't stock alcohol for them to buy with their take-away tacos, tamales and pupusas.
"If we sell beer and wine, it's going to help us," Carino said. "The economy now for us is critical."
But also critical, say some local residents, is the need to revitalize the Route 40 corridor. And allowing yet another business to sell alcohol, especially on a four-mile stretch of the road that already has eight liquor stores, is not the way to do it, they say.
"I'm not against business development at all, but this sort of thing is getting to the point where enough is enough," said Franc Miller, who has lived in the nearby Chatham neighborhood for more than 40 years.
"We wanted some upscale development, and I don't think liquor stores are upscale development," said Angela Beltram, a former member of the County Council and the Route 40 Enhancement Committee, who lives in the North St. John's community.
Beltram said there is no need for another liquor store on Route 40.
"I know what they are going to say. 'It's for our customers, the Latin community,'" Beltram said, adding that cultural reasons have been cited in liquor license applications in the area in the past.
"The last time it was for the Asian community," she said. "Up behind Dunkin' Donuts there's a little Italian deli. Should they sell wine? What kind of argument is that? It's ridiculous."
Miller said more liquor stores bring more trouble for local police. Beltram said the proliferation of liquor stores in the area is bringing down the quality of life in the neighborhoods surrounding Route 40. And both said the Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board and the Liquor Board, which is the County Council sitting as the Board of License Commissioners, deny license applications far too infrequently.
"I just hope the hearing board wakes up and stops willy-nilly granting these licenses, because I don't think they know how to say, 'No,'" Beltram said.
Back in 2009, Miller and Beltram argued many of the same points when they joined other local residents in challenging the hearing board's decision to grant St. John's Liquors a license to operate in St. John's Plaza, about a mile and a half from the Latin Market.
The group appealed the hearing board's decision to the Liquor Board, but weren't able to sway enough council members to change the decision.
Beltram said the St. John's Liquors decision was flawed, especially, she said, because some of the hearing board members admitted they were unfamiliar with the location of the store.
"They said they didn't know where it was!" Beltram said.
This time around, Beltram said she hopes that won't be the case.
She also hopes the entire decision-making process will be more transparent, thanks to new state law that the county delegation sponsored in 2010 and the County Council is expected to adopt as an amendment to its alcohol regulations on Jan. 17.
The amendment states that when determining whether to grant a Class A liquor license, the Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board must include in its written decision its findings on five factors outlined elsewhere in state law: the public need and desire for the license; the number and location of existing licenses and the potential effect on existing licensees; the potential commonality or uniqueness of the services and products to be offered by the applicant's business; the impact on the general health, safety, and welfare of the community; and, any other necessary factors as determined by the board.
Denise King, the Liquor Board's administrator, said those factors have always been considered by the hearing board, and the new amendment will "just kind of clarify" the process.
Beltram said she hopes the new, explicit amendment will cause board members to think more thoroughly about community need when making decisions.
"We have more liquor licenses than we have of any other type of development, the grocery stores, the gas stations," Beltram said. "I don't think it enhances the quality (of Route 40), and I certainly don't think there's a public need. There's nothing you can't buy almost every block for three-and-a-half miles."
Both Beltram and Miller said they will attend the hearing board meeting about the Latin Market whenever it is scheduled. A previously scheduled meeting for Jan. 10 was postponed.
They also said they would appeal to the liquor board if the hearing board grants the Latin Market a license.
'It's very important'
The Carinos, meanwhile, are anxious for the boost in business they expect would come with the license.
On a recent afternoon at the Latin Market, Teresa Carino interacted with a customer and his young daughter in Spanish. Luis Carino cashed another man's check. Both prepared for their lunch rush.
"We think it's very important," Teresa Carino said of the store's role in the lives of her customers, who sometimes show up with family recipes and search for small, hard-to-find ingredients that remind them of home.
"They say, 'Good thing you have everything,'" she said.
She doesn't want to close, she said, and if beer and wine will help her and her husband keep the doors open, they'd like to get it on the shelves.
"It's going to help us with our business, because overall it's getting low," she said