‘It’s our pageant:’ As Miss America leaves Atlantic City, residents get territorial

Miss America contestants wave during the traditional Miss America welcoming ceremony on the Atlantic City, N.J., Boardwalk on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015.  (Edward Lea/The Press of Atlantic City via AP)

Miss America contestants wave during the traditional Miss America welcoming ceremony on the Atlantic City, N.J., Boardwalk on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. (Edward Lea/The Press of Atlantic City via AP)

A day after the Miss America pageant announced it was leaving Atlantic City again, this time for the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, people in the resort town said they weren’t ready to see it go.

Standing outside Boardwalk Hall, the event’s longtime home, they even sounded a little jealous.

“I can’t believe that Mohegan Sun is going to do a better job with the pageant that we can. I mean, it’s our pageant,” Atlantic City native Sandhi Galloway, 51, said Wednesday.

“The parade, it belongs here, and it’s not going to be the same in Connecticut, I don’t think,” said Hannah Sylvester, an incoming college student, referring to the popular event where contestants ride down the boardwalk wearing shoes decorated to represent their individual states and the crowd yells, “Show us your shoes!”

“After the girl’s crowned, I mean, she’s got to go into the ocean to get her toes wet,” said Steve Mattis, a retired ironworker, alluding to another Atlantic City tradition.

“It’s not like we have the statue for nothing,” said 27-year-old Clement Sharff, who works in the city’s entertainment industry. “When you erect a statute of Miss America, that’s its home, in my eyes at least.”

Scharff said the pageant is to New Jersey what maple syrup is to Vermont.

“It’s kind of like we lost the diamond out of our ring a little bit,” he said. “But as long as we keep our eyes open, we’ll find it again.”

Sandhi Galloway, an Atlantic City native who recently moved to Ventnor Heights, speaks outside Boardwalk Hall on July 24, 2019. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

The pageant began in Atlantic City in 1921 as a way to extend the summer tourism season beyond Labor Day weekend. It became synonymous with the New Jersey seaside resort but moved to Las Vegas in 2005, returning to Atlantic City in 2013.

The Miss America Organization announced Tuesday it would hold this year’s event at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. 

It will be broadcast on NBC on Dec. 19, in a switch from recent broadcaster ABC. That’s later in the year than usual, and on a Thursday rather than a Sunday to avoid competition with NFL football.

“The Miss America Organization is proud to partner with Mohegan Sun as we return to our longtime NBC home,” Regina Hopper, the organization’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to a fresh take on this historic competition that will showcase the incredible women vying for the job of Miss America 2020.”

The pageant’s departure from Atlantic City had been expected since the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority declined to renew subsidies for the pageant following last September’s competition.

Over the past six years, the agency spent more than $20 million on subsidies for the pageant.

Connecticut did not provide the pageant with any financial incentives to make the move, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Economic Development said.

The organization has also faced management turnover since an email scandal in December 2017 led to the ouster of the pageant’s mostly male leadership, some of whom were revealed to have mocked contestants’ appearances, intellect, and even sex lives.

They were replaced by female leadership including former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America.

But state pageant organizations chafed under the new management team and launched vocal protests against the leadership, which vowed to move forward with changes designed to make Miss America more relevant and empowering to women.

The biggest change included the elimination of the swimsuit competition in favor of more in-depth contestant interviews.

Carlson has since stepped down.

In its announcement Tuesday, the Miss America Organization did not address whether the pageant was making a multi-year commitment to Connecticut. 

David Holtzman, executive director of the Miss New Jersey pageant, said he’s optimistic the competition will return to the Garden State.

“We have two more casinos now and it looks like the town can handle it,” he said, referring to the reopening of two Atlantic City casinos last year. “When you don’t have something, that’s when you miss it more.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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