ATLANTIC CITY - Yes, they were literally rolling up the welcome mat to Atlantic City this week.
As if the beleaguered city did not have enough problems, the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) said it discovered that a landmark sign hanging over the Atlantic City Expressway - a courtesy spot where a version of a "welcome to Atlantic City" sign has hung for decades - did not have a permit.
And so a crew was sent out to literally roll up the sign - In one mile, you'll be a million miles away / Do AC - even as Memorial Day approaches and the marketing dollars shrink.
Visible as the crew rolled up the sign was an earlier slogan for Atlantic City on the back - Always Turned On (except, some might add, sometimes for the Revel property, which has had intermittent power due to ownership changes).
Sharon Gordon, spokeswoman for the SJTA, said the authority was not trying to pile on to the hurting resort, which has seen four casinos close and thousands of jobs lost, and is facing layoffs to try to plug budget gaps.
"It's not any slight to Atlantic City," Gordon said, "even though it's a lovely way to welcome people."
Indeed, late Thursday a spokesman for state Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox - who is also chairman of the SJTA - said Fox had directed the agency to "immediately replace the Welcome to Atlantic City sign in time for Memorial Day weekend."
"Because of the iconic nature of the sign, SJTA will be allowed to erect the sign while it is coordinating with NJDOT to obtain the proper permits," said Steve Schapiro, spokesman for the state DOT.
Gordon said the removed sign was "noncompliant" under current rules. Permits were not required decades ago, when the location was established as a spot for the resort to announce itself to visitors, she said.
Gordon could not say whether the sign itself violated any current federal highway regulations.
But the abrupt removal of the sign from one of the most visible spots in the area - an action captured by a photographer from the Atlantic City Press that shows the sign being rolled up like a sardine can top - prompted Fox to intervene.
"It was a noncompliant sign," Gordon said. "It had to come down."
Late Thursday afternoon, Gordon said Fox was working with Mayor Don Guardian to expedite a permitting process.
But shortly after 5 p.m., after further media inquiries, the state said it had ordered the sign replaced.
Jeff Guaracino, executive director of the Atlantic City Alliance, said the signs over the years have served to promote the city, welcome visitors, and also save marketing agencies the cost of privately owned billboards.
The alliance, which is funded by casinos but is slated to be eliminated or scaled down under pending legislation, also buys billboards to advertise events such as fireworks shows. The alliance is the group that created the Do AC slogan and handed out ubiquitous car magnets seen on many cars passing under the Welcome sign.
The Do AC car magnets do not appear to violate any regulations.
"It's a sign that's absolutely critical for the welcome to the city," Guaracino said. "It's the only sign that's available to welcome visitors to our great city that you don't have to pay a private company for. They took it down."
Later, Guaracino would not comment on whether a replaced sign would feature a new slogan. The alliance's official slogan for this summer - "The Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore" - is currently displayed on banners attached to utility poles throughout the city.