Izzy Coppo was only planning to stay for a few months when she first arrived in the small Queensland outback town of Ilfracombe
Queensland’s remote towns struggle to attract and retain long-term workers
New campaign aims to encourage more city dwellers to give life in the outback a shot
Affordable housing, lifestyle and work opportunities were featured as key attractions
“I remember coming in on a plane and being like, ‘Whoa, this place is so empty and hot,’” she said.
The 26-year-old American backpacker moved to the town of 259 to fulfill a requirement for the second year of her working holiday visa.
That was until she met Riley from Brisbane, who was working as an electrician in a nearby town.
“He came to my work several times during the week for lunch, but he was too shy to invite me,” Ms Coppo said.
“Finally I said, ‘You can just ask me on a date’.”
Build a new life
Fast forward three years, the couple are married, own property and run two businesses, including a popular bed and breakfast in Longreach.
Neither would dream of leaving the outback anytime soon.
“But they are pleasantly surprised by what the city offers.”
The Coppos had no experience running a small business before moving to the outback, but said the low cost of living meant they could take financial risks that others young people only dreamed of taking.
“I don’t think we can do what we are doing now in Brisbane,” Ms Coppo said.
“It just wouldn’t be possible.”
Declining urban populations
But despite the lifestyle strengths and low property costs, remote Queensland is struggling to attract and retain long-term workers.
Those who move often do not stay more than a few months.
The population of Longreach Regional Council was 3,386 last year, up from 4,217 in 2012, according to the Queensland Government’s Office of the Statistician.
The number of people living in the nearby Barcoo Shire region – home to the border towns of Stonehenge, Jundah and Windorah – has also fallen from 363 to 262 in a decade and is expected to fall to around 171 people by 2041.
Regional Australia Institute chief economist Kim Houghton said there was a lot of mobility.
Lack of convenience and isolation are often cited as key factors behind the transient population.
Longreach is a 12 hour drive from Brisbane.
“People often trade convenience for career opportunities,” Dr. Houghton said.
“But there’s a lot of opportunity in regional places for people to be more creative about how they structure their income.”
The townspeople waved
A new campaign funded by the Remote Area Planning and Development Board is encouraging more city dwellers to try outback living.
The Far Out campaign features stories of people who have chosen the bush over the coast and touts the lifestyle, job opportunities and “sunsets over red sand dunes” as main attractions.
The development council’s senior director of regional development, Morgan Gronold, said the campaign was telling “the real stories of the region”.
Mr Gronold said severe staff shortages in sectors such as hospitality and tourism, as well as shrinking populations in some towns – partly due to previously closed national borders and a lack of backpackers – were the main drivers of this surge.
“There are businesses on the main streets of all our cities that want to expand, but can’t find the resources to do so.”
The lack of long-term housing creates problems for those who move.
Outback Aussie Tours owner Alan Smith said he recently renovated an old lodging house in Longreach to accommodate up to 12 people.
He didn’t believe there was enough infrastructure to support or retain workers long term.
“There were times when there were only three or seven rentals available in the whole city,” Smith said.
“We have to talk about livability as a city and as a region.
“It’s about increasing the quality of life of the places here.”
Despite the challenges, Izzy and Riley Coppo believed more young people should take the plunge and trade the big smoke for the bush.
“It’s going to give us a good head start in life here because you can buy property, start a business and still do fun things with your friends without it completely destroying your bank account,” Ms Coppo said. .
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