ATLANTIC CITY - There they were.
All 53 of the Miss America 2015 contestants made their debut here Wednesday to a crowd of more than 300 people who had gathered for a special sign-in ceremony at Kennedy Plaza outside the historic Boardwalk Hall. They seemed to lift the mood on a resort town where two casinos have closed in the last 48 hours and another will shutter its gaming halls and hotel by midmonth.
"Oh my, aren't they pretty," observed Amelia Pagan, 68, of Jersey City, as she snapped pictures with her cellphone camera as a single-file line of the women sashayed onto the outdoor stage as a live rendition of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" blared through loudspeakers.
This is the second year that the pageant, which began in 1921 as a season-extending event in Atlantic City, is returning to its roots after a six-year hiatus in Las Vegas. The return of the Miss America competition last year was expected to help turn attention away from the sagging gaming fortunes of the resort.
This year's pageant is expected to bring a $30 million economic boost to the region, officials said.
"I look at Miss America as the crown jewel of Atlantic City," Sam Haskell, CEO of the Miss American Organization, told the crowd.
For Wednesday's event, all of the contestants wore the crowns and sashes they had collected after winning the top title in their home states. Most of the young women, representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, teetered onto the wooden way in heels, while Miss Oklahoma opted for flats.
The majority braved the nearly 90-degree humid weather in semiformal wear, while Miss Oregon and Miss Vermont decided on jumpsuits. Miss Pennsylvania wore a dress with leather panels. Miss Puerto Rico wore a silk sheath.
And each had a chance to introduce herself to the crowd, giving her name, the state she is representing, and offer a quick quip about herself. And in usual Miss America fashion, each then strutted her stuff to a cheering crowd on a short catwalk that had been constructed on the Boardwalk.
Some said they wanted to use their scholarship winnings from the pageant to become doctors, lawyers, meteorologists, journalists, and entertainers.
Miss New Jersey, Cierra Kaler-Jones, noted that her parents are casino workers and it is "historic" for her to be representing the Garden State in the pageant.
"As the daughter of two casino workers, it is historic for me to be participating in this and help bring life back into Atlantic City," Kaler-Jones said to cheers from the crowd.
The pageant festivities began within 48 hours of the closure of two Atlantic City casinos - the Showboat and Revel - thanks to a losing streak for the resort's gaming halls. Trump Plaza is scheduled to shutter its casino and hotel Sept. 16. The Atlantic Club casino closed in January. About 8,000 will have lost their casino jobs by the end of this month.
Local and state dignitaries, including Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, used Wednesday's event as an opportunity to promote the resort, noting the variety of activities and attractions the young women may find during the next 11 days of preliminary competitions, a parade, and the pageant on Sunday, Sept. 14. Preliminary competitions will begin Tuesday and the Miss America Pageant will be broadcast live from Boardwalk Hall on the ABC network at 8 p.m.
"When you leave New Jersey, you'll all be huge fans of the state," Guadagno told the contestant hopefuls.