You don’t have to tell Cierra Kaler-Jones about the challenges facing Atlantic City.
The reigning Miss New Jersey, Kaler-Jones hails from nearby Galloway Township. The 21-year-old senior at Rutgers University is the daughter of two casino workers who for now, at least, have jobs.
To her, Miss America’s place in A.C. has never been more important, as the city struggles to find new footing.
“There’s a special resiliency and strength to the city of Atlantic City, especially in still recovering in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and then also with the casino closures, so I think the Miss America Organization is really trying to build up the economy here, and I’m so thankful to be a part of that,” she said.
Kaler-Jones said some in her extended family have already been laid off, and others are holding their breath. So she relishes any opportunity to boost people’s spirits, such as when she paid a visit to Harrah’s, where her parents work.
“It was such a beautiful moment, because people realize that Miss New Jersey is the daughter of two casino workers. But, more importantly, that she is a tangible person that they can touch, and they can take pictures with and get autograph signings from,” she said. “It really brings in a different perspective for them to know that this kind of person can be in this position.”
When Miss America returned to Atlantic City last year for last year’s competition after several years in Las Vegas, some things were different in her old hometown. The Borgata, brand-new when the pageant quit A.C. in 2005, was no longer a novelty. The old Atlantic City Hilton had turned into the Atlantic Club, and Revel was the shiny new object on the Boardwalk.
A year later, the changes are even more stark. The Atlantic Club, Showboat and Revel have already closed, and at least one more will shut.
But Sam Haskell, chairman of the Miss America Organization, said the contest’s role hasn’t changed.
“It’s a different Atlantic City in that I think people are looking for something to hold on to. And I believe the Miss America Organization and our pageant competition is that something. I believe that we are still the jewel in the crown of Atlantic City,” Haskell said. “It’s why we came back here last year, and we’re going to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, with all those who need something positive in their lives.”
Susan Thompson, the deputy executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said local tourism and gambling officials anticipated the casino closings and see it as an overcrowded market correcting itself.
“So Miss America coming back this year is coming back to a city, which of course has seen some closings, which was a predictable event. What Miss America is also seeing is a unified city, both on the public and private side, a city that is ready to dig in and look for good solutions for the future of the city,” she said.
Those solutions will depend heavily on Atlantic City’s ability to reposition itself as a place for concerts, festivals and other non-gaming events.
Miss America is ready to pitch in, but can only do so much, Haskell said.
“We can’t save Atlantic City. Atlantic City is going to save itself, and we are just one of the parts of that saving,” he said.
The first Miss America was crowned in 1921 — more than five decades before legalized gambling came to Atlantic City. Shifting the focus away from casinos will, in a way, help Miss America return to doing what she does best: Being the resort city’s ambassador-in-chief.
Kaler-Jones said she’s ready, should she take the crown.
“As Miss New Jersey, whether or not I win Miss America, I really want to promote that magical feeling, so that everyone can start to feel that, and we have more people funneling into Atlantic City because, if not, my own parents’ jobs are at stake,” she said.