They’re here.

The 53 women vying to be the next Miss America were officially welcomed to Atlantic City on Tuesday with an arrival ceremony akin to a homecoming party as a long lineup of officials and a crowd of local fans welcomed the women “home.”

Hundreds gathered on the Boardwalk at Kennedy Plaza as the women introduced themselves and signed their names on a map of the states — a longtime Atlantic City tradition. Nearly every contestant made reference to the competition’s history in Atlantic City and the significance of its return. Many noted that this trip marked their first visits to the resort.

“I just want to say your beautiful beaches are a refreshing change from the fields of cattle I’m used to,” Miss Montana Sheridan Pope joked.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno welcomed the women at the ceremony, speaking adamantly about the effect their presence will have on the city. She called the competition’s return to Atlantic City a “dream come true” for the state, particularly as the state has struggled to recapture business in shore towns since Hurricane Sandy.

“It means money for venders. It means business people. It means overnight stays. It means an attitude. It means dollars and cents ... not only for Atlantic City but for the whole region and for the entire state,” Guadagno said.

State and local officials are hoping Miss America will bring a financial boost to the resort as visitors flock to the city for the Show Us Your Shoes Parade on Sept. 14 and the final televised competition Sept. 15. Officials have projected a $32 million economic impact to the city.

Still, there were plenty of area residents on the Boardwalk on Tuesday who said they were thrilled to be there to witness the competition’s return.

Kay Wright, of Pleasantville, arrived early for the ceremony armed with a chair and determined to get a good vantage point.

Wright, 86, has attended every Miss America competition since she was about 7 years old, including the years the competition was in Las Vegas, she said.

“I remember standing on my brother’s shoulders to watch the contestants,” Wright said.

Her daughter, Linda, also of Pleasantville, added that she was born in 1948 and attended that year’s pageant while still in the womb.

“It’s just like it’s in our blood coming from this area,” Kay Wright said.

The crowd Tuesday watched as the cohort of contestants walked on the city’s Boardwalk for the first time since 2004. The following year the Miss America Organization opted to move the contest to Las Vegas where it remained through 2012.

“Like the prodigal son, we don’t know why they left. There’s many reasons. But we welcome them back with open arms,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.

The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is contributing $7.5 million over three years to keep the competition in Atlantic City. The Miss America Organization has a three-year contract with the CRDA, though CEO Sam Haskell has said he wants the relationship to continue long past three years.

Officials seem to want the relationship to continue as well. On Tuesday, a permanent display commemorating Miss America was unveiled.

A 7-foot-tall statue resembling reigning Miss America Mallory Hagan that will stand in Kennedy Plaza was introduced to the public Tuesday. The statue featuring Hagan ready to crown the next Miss America was crafted by artist Brian Hanlon, of Toms River.

However, the version unveiled Tuesday is only a temporary installment made of resin that will be moved inside Boardwalk Hall. A permanent bronze statue will be moved to the Boardwalk in the coming months once it’s completed

The final version of the statue is expected to weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds, Hanlon said. That’s at least double the weight of the 400-pound statue of longtime Miss America host Bert Parks that stands outside the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel.

“It’s the Jersey Shore. The shore needs this type of publicity right now,” Hanlon said.

It was not clear Tuesday how much the final statue will cost and which organizations will be paying for it.

All 53 contestants posed with the statue at the close of Tuesday’s welcoming ceremony.

Fans such as Donna Tissot and Michele Cappetta, both of Denville, said they came to Atlantic City for the occasion.

“Growing up, my family used to have an annual event, a party before the pageant and we would all be together watching and trying to pick the winner,” Tissot recalled as she stood outside Boardwalk Hall.

Cappetta had a similar experience and remembered watching Miss America  with her family when Bert Parks was still the host

“My family too. It was like the ritual, just ... waiting (to see the winner),” Cappetta said. “It was an important event at the Jersey Shore.”

Neither of them has ever seen the show live at Boardwalk Hall and Tuesday was their first time coming to the arrival ceremony to see the contestants in person.

“It feels like we’re at home,” Tissot said. “You just sit back and think of the memories.”

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

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Contact Trudi Gilfillian:

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