Drive 30 minutes outside  St. John's, down the Southern Shore Highway, and you'll find a booming economy.

With new suburbs and new businesses, the town of Witless Bay is flourishing. The town, with a population of about 1,600 people; is the fastest growing community in Newfoundland and Labrador.

More than 400 people entered the town between 2011 and 2016, according to data released by Statistics Canada. From 1,167 in 2011 to 1619 in 2016, the town's borders now hold 38.7 per cent more people than they used to.

Witless Bay stands out in a province where most small towns are seeing people leave.

Mayor Sébastien Després says the town's proximity to St. John's is a big help, as about two-thirds of the new population has come from other parts of the province.

"Much of the growth is due to the fact that a lot of people want to live close to the city, and they don't want to live in the city," he says.

Ever since 2010, there's been a steady stream of development applications, and proposals for new subdivisions. Després calls it an incredible growth period, one that he says shows little sign of slowing down.

Part of a trend

For the unacquainted, the changes in Witless Bay can be quite stunning.

Michael White returned home in October, after decades away from the community in other parts of Canada.

Witless Bay subdivision construction

Witless Bay is the fastest-growing town in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to census data. It is followed by Whiteway, Port Blandford and Holyrood. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"When I came home in October … I was kind of freaked out, actually," he said.

"I had no idea that this was going on. I'm quite surprised at the number of them, the size of them, and I guess the oil is bringing it on."

Population expert Rob Greenwood of Memorial University's Harris Centre says Witless Bay is part of a trend, one that has brought people into communities like Holyrood, Paradise and Flatrock — all not very far away from St. John's.

Michael White

Michael White worked in construction, building homes in different provinces in Canada. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"It's because of the labour market pull, and people wanting the best of both worlds," he said.

"So you have a house with a great view of the sea, and you can hop on your Ski-Doo … but you can still drive to work."

Challenges, too

The small-town boom has brought about 20 new businesses into the community since 2011. 

Any new development is likely to take place west of Highway 10, the town's main road. But that poses its share of challenges in a community that has yet to connect a public water and sewer system.

Després says the development is likely to be pursued on higher elevations, and he worries that imperfect development could ruin drinking water wells for residents in lower lots.

The town has also had trouble just keeping up.

Rob Greenwood

Rob Greenwood of Memorial University's Harris Centre says many people want a rural lifestyle as well as the ability to drive to work in a bigger market. (Daniel MacEachern/CBC)

"Our infrastructure isn't growing as fast as our needs are, and as fast as our population," said Després. "For instance, our school is bursting at the seams, we lost our cafeteria a few years ago, and we simply don't have space for the kids."

The mayor says the development is good — if everything fits.

Witless Bay mayor Sébastien Després population growth

Mayor Sébastien Després says there are a lot more people in Witless Bay now than there were when he moved to the town seven years ago. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The town wants to maintain its rural character, he says, and its low municipal tax rate.

"It's a bright future, as long as we can protect the sustainability of the town. If we can keep growth going and keep growth healthy, while protecting wells, while protecting our current residents' interests, growth is fantastic." 

"But if the growth makes the town unsustainable, then it poses humungous dangers, so we are very wary of that."