High school exams are coming to an end. In a couple of months, Whanganui, like most provincial cities in New Zealand will suffer the annual exodus of teenagers heading off to university and to travel the word.

Numbers in the 20-35 age bracket are in decline and much of that is down to outside influences.

But what can be done to draw even some of those people back as early as possible?

The Four Five Hundred had a conversation with two people who represent that key demographic: Whanganui District Council Youth Committee co-chairs Jack Southee and Macy Duxfield.

Four Five Hundred: To start, what is it like living in Whanganui at your age?

Jack Southee: You always hear the struggle from your friends like, ‘oh there’s nothing to do’ but I think when you do look at it, I guess from an optimistic side, we are pretty lucky here with all the facilities we have – the reserves and the beaches and things like that – so there are plenty of things to do.

Four Five Hundred: But I guess everybody wants to get out for a while. That’s nothing against Whanganui, it’s just being young and wanting to explore. Year-13 students – what are they looking to do?

Macy Duxfield: So many people don’t know what to do so there are a few people staying home until they figure out what they want to study. There’s heaps going over to Palmerston North too.

Jack Southee: Yeah, I know heaps of friends going off to Auckland and Dunedin and stuff like that. Obviously, there’s things like medical school where you can’t study in Whanganui, even vet school over in Massey. But yeah, probably a large majority that I know are heading away to University and outside Whanganui.

FFH: Which is just the way it is.

JS: I guess it doesn’t matter where you go – it’s the university experience to kind of go away from your home town. And even if you live in Auckland and stuff, a lot of the students will go away because it’s just the uni experience to head away from family and struggle with the cost of food and things without having your parents down the road. You can’t eliminate that factor of people wanting to go off and experience something new. That’s just going to be a natural thing, no matter how good your home town is. So, it’s the combination of bringing people back but also bringing new people in.

FFH: The ones that are staying here, do they know what they want to do? Do they have jobs to go in to?

Macy Duxfield: The people that I know that are staying and just saying hopefully they’ll be able to find a job or hopefully they’ll be able to travel. They’re not too sure.

JS: I know one or two people who are all set up to have fulltime work for when they leave high school. I don’t know if I know too many people who are just sitting around for a year but I’m sure undoubtedly there are people who do that. I mean, you either know what you’re doing or you don’t.

MD: Also, I think by the time you get to year-13 there’s people wanting to go into trades and farming and that sort of thing who have already ventured off into that.

FFH: I guess the key is to bring the people who are leaving back as early as possible. Do you think people are keen to come back?

JS: I think as far as a place to grow up and raise a family you can’t get much better than Whanganui. Especially when you look at transportation – look at the main street and there’s barely any congestion – housing prices and all that sort of stuff. It’s really ideal for that but it’s kind of having that spark and that need. Particularly with jobs, I know it’s very, very hard to get jobs in many different fields in Whanganui.

FFH: Especially people who have gone to university and have highly specialised qualifications.

JS: Yeah, you’ve got that whole centralisation of areas like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch where there are more opportunities and Whanganui probably isn’t as great at having those opportunities.

MD: I have a couple of cousins – one who studied in Dunedin and one who’s been working in Christchurch – and they want to come back to Whanganui but it’s just the jobs. They need jobs to support their families. There’s definitely people that want to come back but they just can’t.

FHH: You’ll have a different perspective to the people making the decisions and trying to tackle this problem. What would you like to see done to help bring these people back?

MD: It’s a tricky one because we all know that it’s jobs that are the answer but it’s not as easy as that.

JS: It’s kind of exploiting those opportunities that Whanganui has that other cities don’t. Those assets that we can use to our advantage to sway businesses to want to come here. I think the port revitalisation has a lot of potential to be able to hold the larger commercial firms and to be able to bring jobs. You’re always going to have those main fields – there’s always going to be a hospital here and a vet clinic – but it’s kind of about building on them. It’s really tough question – sort of impossible for a bunch of 17-year-olds to give an answer to what council’s been trying to work out for a few years now.

MD: Everyone sort of knows the answer but it’s the how which is really difficult.

FFH: In terms of making this a great place for the younger people that do stay – is there anything that you’d like to see change there?

JS: One thing that I have noticed because I work at the Splash Centre is they’ve recently done that bike track there… where they’ve gone a shaped a small pile of dirt into a bike track. And whenever I go to work there’s at least 3-4 people there, if not seven plus, using it. And it’s weird because when you look at it, it’s a pile of dirt yet people are still willing to go out of their way and utilise it.

I think it’s more assets like that that Whanganui needs to bring people into town. Because no longer is going into town to shop a thing to do. It’s kind of like, ‘hey, how about a skate park or nice green area with barbecues where we can chuck around a ball and maybe go fish in the river or something like that.

MD: And things that make the likes of Wellington so successful – like how they have little concerts and there’s always something happening for young people.

JS: And their waterfront which is just capitalised on awesomely. Whereas Whanganui – I mean it was a business town right from the start hence all our commercial industry is right out on the ocean and the seafront where in most centres that’s prime real estate. It’s underutilised and I think that’s what really needs to be built on. Especially down along Taupo Quay – I mean that water front it done up nicely but I think things like barbecue stations, maybe more green areas.

It doesn’t need to be a big elaborate multi-million dollar thing. It just needs to have some thought put towards it and maybe a couple of ten cent coins. Something to bring people down to use assets here. And I know we have the issue with the tides but somewhere safe to go get wet down by the river.

Instead what we’ve got is the back of Property Brokers and an old vege market, which is nothing against them whatsoever, but again it comes back to the undercapitalisation of our assets here. It’s a river. There’s so much you could do there. And I mean, it might be as simple as piling a whole heap of dirt there and making a bike track or bringing people there and then all of a sudden cafes want to be there because that’s where the people are.

If there’s reason for people to go into town then maybe while you’re there you see there’s a sale on in the store. Because no longer is going in to town to buy something enough of a reason to go into town. That will be what really revitalises the town centre.

I think UCOL needs to be capitalised on more as well.

MD: Yeah, there’s this awesome architecture and a really good building and then they just chucked up a massive fence.

JS: And it’s facing away from the river – it’s just a massive missed opportunity. Having education opportunities for tertiary students in Whanganui. That wouldn’t so much be keeping people here but would bring people here.

MD: As soon as other young people in other cities see Whanganui as a place to go then of course it’s going to have a bit more appeal for people here to stay.

JS: In terms of the 25-30-year-old bracket – that comes purely down to jobs. Normally by that point you’ve got your qualifications and you’re looking for somewhere to buy a house. But you can have the perfect set up here but if there’s nothing to bring you here, if there’s no jobs then it goes back to that big old problem.

MD: Yeah, I was asking my sister what would bring you back to Whanganui, would you want to come back to Whanganui – jobs aside – when you’ve got your qualification. She appreciates the arts and the beaches and everything, so like, in that respect she’d be happy to come back but the job is really the main thing.

FFH: But as you say that’s way easier said than done. You need jobs to have people but you need people to have jobs. It’s a catch 22. Do you guys want to come back here? I suppose you have to say that now.

MD: I definitely do see myself having a family here and things like that but I would like to go out and experience things.

JS: Me wanting to go to med school, I mean, there’s a huge need for GPs in provincial areas, I certainly haven’t ruled it out coming back to Whanganui.