HOW do you stop rural population decline?
It's the $64,000 question that a couple of the larger regional hubs in NSW have managed to crack - but, for the majority of rural NSW towns, the answer still eludes them.
A breakdown of recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures shows that, between 2013 and 2018, the region's larger centres - Tamworth and its surrounding villages, Gunnedah and Armidale - all saw steady population increases.
Some towns struggled, their populations remaining stagnant or going backwards. Inverell, Quirindi (both gaining 76 people) and Narrabri (66 people) were the only places to see growth over the six years, all other towns and regions suffering a decline.
But the leaders of a handful of New England communities are optimistic they're about to buck the trend.
The Leader caught up with the mayors of Moree, Inverell and Glen Innes to talk about what they're doing to attract more people to their towns.
THE black-soil plains of Moree has been one of the hardest-hit regions. The city and its surrounding region lost a combined 537 people in six years.
Mayor Katrina Humphries said the drought was still knocking businesses and farmers about, but there was a "little ray of sunshine in a very dark time".
The NSW government just announced $3.4 million for the first stage of Moree's intermodal rail hub, which will form a key part of the multi-billion-dollar Inland Rail.
Cr Humphries described it as a "turning point for the region".
"I'm not normally stuck for words, but I'm struggling to emphasise what the potential for this is," she said.
"I don't think we've grasped the magnitude of what this is going to do for Moree. It'll create hundreds of jobs in the building of it and thousands into the future."
Moree council has been working on the development with the state and federal governments for about six years - "probably the biggest collaboration I've worked on, aside from getting married," Cr Humphries said with a laugh.
"It's surreal in a way. It's going to create so much business and so much interest in Moree. People have already started building more housing, because they get it; they understand how big it is."
Cr Humphries said if people were curious about the impact the development would have on the town, they could look to Parkes, which is well advanced in a similar project.
It's spurred millions of dollars in private investment, attracting a food manufacturing plant to the town, a solar farm and a mine expansion. Parkes Shire Council recently revealed it had issued 165 development consents in the past financial year at a value of $66 million, an annual increase of 176 per cent.
"We'll be spending a lot of time in Parkes to see what they've done right, and if they can help us with any suggests about what we can do better," Cr Humphries said.
The council is expecting to see some movement on the project by the end of the year, and work on the Inland Rail will follow 12 to 18 months after.
"We expect that private investment to follow. In the city, it's so expensive - businesses can sell their warehouse in the city and build a brand-new one out here and owe nothing," Cr Humphries said.
"Hang on to your hat, because this is a game-changer for the future."
The ABS stats show that in six years, Glen Innes' population decreased by one person.
But Glen Innes mayor Carol Sparks feels "very positive about our little niche".
"We don't have mines, we have renewables, which is really good thing," Cr Sparks said.
"There are the two big wind farms and we've got solar farms popping up all over the place."
The $400 million White Rock Wind Farm brought hundreds of construction jobs and a handful of ongoing ones to the town.
"We've had 72 people and their families move to town since the White Rock Wind Farm," Cr Sparks said.
"It's definitely helped us with the range of young people coming in. We've got a few families who have come in, where the husband's out there working and the wife's in town; some are teachers, some have kids."
Glen Innes is also playing to its rural lifestyle strengths. The council has embarked on various projects to improve the "livability" of the town, the little things that make people want to stay.
"This is a beautiful place, with a lot of positive things going for it," Cr Sparks said.
"We're upgrading our main street and we've got a master plan for our parks. We've upgraded the little park on the western side to join with the eastern side of town with a beautiful path, and we're working on our rail trail project."
THE town of Inverell is also reaping the rewards of the renewable energy sector with the massive Sapphire Wind Farm on its doorstep.
While the number of ongoing jobs the renewable sector brings are small in number, they're highly skilled and highly paid jobs.
Inverell mayor Paul Harmon said in a regional town, this sort of job was worth its weight in gold.
"Those highly skilled renewable jobs are extremely valuable for our community," he said.
"It's brought a number of new people to town, and it's given other locals the opportunity to re-skill themselves and be a part of the industry."
The $60 million hospital redevelopment is also a big part of the town's future growth.
"With more services comes more specialists and, if we can get a few specialists to stay, it creates a snowball effect," Cr Harmon said.
"The construction of these long projects helps us capture some people as well.
"They move here for the build from urban areas, and see what rural living is actually like and find themselves staying."