CORNING, N.Y. -- Not too long ago, it didn't seem to matter that this small rural city in the southern tier of New York State had more bars and saloons than anything else and a fancy dinner out pretty much meant driving to another town.

Craft and production workers for Corning Inc., the world-famous glassmaker that put this place on the map, were drawn from the local area. Managers, mostly men with wives who worked at home, lived out their careers at the company and didn't seem to miss the fast-lane lifestyle that a big city like Boston or New York offers.

But small-town life doesn't play as well with single professional women and minorities, many of whom have needs and expectations far different than those in the management pipeline before them.

Confronting this issue is the task facing Corning and countless companies like it as they try to attract the best and the brightest to what some would consider cultural and economic backwaters. Their dilemma has taken on a new urgency as the demographic profile of the country changes and the white male is slowly displaced as the traditional staple of the work force.

In its attempt to bring dual-career couples, blacks, women and other minorities to its headquarters, Corning has gone to drastic lengths.

It built a hotel downtown. It helped pave the way for new businesses, like a supermarket and restaurants, to come to Corning. It provided a company shuttle for employees to fly to New York. It began to regard the dating problems of single female professionals as a "retention" issue. It even brought black culture to the little town of Corning.

In making these unorthodox investments, the company is facing up to competitive realities that may help it keep people like Jill Gleeson, a 27-year-old assistant product manager whose first reaction upon landing in the town of 12,700 was complete dismay. "I got out in the cornfields and I thought, 'This can't be it.' "

First impressions are lasting, and they began to cost the company some $4 million annually in turnover costs. The attrition rate for women and minorities has improved more recently, but it still is double that for white males. At the professional level, about a third of the company's 6,000-person headquarters staff is female and 5.5 percent is black.

James R. Houghton, chairman of Corning Inc., admits that the company's strategy is in its own best interest. "If we don't have the environment conducive to getting the best employees, we won't get them," said Houghton. "We're at a disadvantage in terms of metropolitan areas in some senses."

In other words, companies in suburban areas or those close to big cities would not have to worry about where their black employees get their hair cut.

Corning did. So it paid for the training of a hairstylist who it will help put in business by next year, said Richard Rayhill, president of Corning Enterprises Inc., a subsidiary that exists solely to improve the economic and social condition of the town.

Not long afterward, with help from Corning Inc., the Black Entertainment Network aired on local cable television. Music more attuned to black tastes began to be played on a local radio station after a nudge from the company. A Society of Black Professionals was started.

"Corning has paid a lot of attention to improving quality of life -- things like cable and the radio station. These are big deals for young people," said Gail O. Baity, who is black and works in education and training for Corning.

Her initial reaction to taking a job with Corning 14 years ago was that she could tolerate it for no more than two years before moving on to a bigger place with more of a racial mix. "Now it's 12 more years than I planned to be here," she said.

Baity also knew she would have another problem when she took a job with Corning. The black population is minuscule.

"I didn't plan to get married because I didn't think I could find a husband here," she said. It was easier than she expected: She is married, her spouse works for Corning and she is expecting her first baby any day.

Gene Hambrick, a black marketing manager, signed on in 1973 and his marriage almost broke up because his wife "hated the place." It wasn't until the couple spent a few years in Detroit that they began to appreciate a small community where crime is almost nonexistent, outdoor recreational opportunities abound and you know your neighbors.

Hambrick's wife now works for a relocation firm that helps sell Corning to new employees.

The Dating Game Gleeson, who made her peace with small-town life, is about to go on leave to get a master's degree at Harvard University. But professional concerns and a shortage of available men made it difficult for her to do normal things like get a date.

"When professional women come in they are looking for a peer or someone higher {to date}. As you climb the age and experience ladder, it's harder for women," Gleeson said. The dating game rules dictate that male executives can go out with secretaries but female executives likely would not look for a date in the mail room.

After suffering through several years of "social limbo," Gleeson said she has learned to "readjust my standards of fun" and do things like cycle and go to the nearby Finger Lakes region to socialize.

Management picked up on the problem when it noticed a recurring theme in exit interviews: Sure, some people said small-town life was not for them, but even more of them -- specifically minorities and women -- complained of stalled careers and a lack of upward mobility into top management positions.

"Don't get me wrong. Corning is a small town and we have to worry about it every day," Houghton said. "But they said they left because they didn't see opportunity. It's the old glass ceiling. ..."

The company began requiring managers to take training on how men and women interact in the workplace and on racial diversity issues. It became more active in helping spouses find jobs in markets that were farther afield from Corning, N.Y.

"It doesn't make it an ideal place to live, but we're making progress," said James E. Riesbeck, Corning's executive vice president. The company also has been working on providing more in the way of child care, elder care and flexible scheduling to make a career at Corning more attractive.

"We want to get to the point where our reputation will speak for itself," Riesbeck said.

Creating a City The result of channeling millions of dollars into the cultural, educational and economic life of the town has been the creation of a city that didn't exist before Hurricane Agnes devastated Corning in 1972, when the company stepped in to help rebuild.

A walk down Market Street, Corning's turn-of-the-century main street, tells the story. Now there is an eclectic mix of art museums, small, trendy restaurants and craftsy boutiques.

With funding from the company, many of the storefronts were restored to their original condition and vacancy rates dropped from 25 percent in 1978 to 2 percent now. Though Red Lobster thought Corning was too small a market, Burger King came to town.

"What has made Corning {the town} successful has been the continuing influence of Corning Glass. They are the stabilizer," said Ted Marks, proprietor of Bookmarks, the town's only store selling new books. "I don't feel we could make it without them."

So, no one in town thought it the least bit unusual when the company built the Corning Hilton. When the hotel needed more space, the glassmaker built an addition. And finally, when it was ready to get out of the hotel business, it made the new owner agree to build a business conference center, as a condition of the sale.

When it became clear that a big supermarket with big choices was a must, the company helped with site acquisition and development.

And when it decided the town it helped build should be home to another major company, Corning emptied out one of its buildings on Market Street and leased it to Dresser Rand Inc., a maker of industrial compressors.

One of the more unusual economic development deals the company got involved in was the purchase of the nearby Watkins Glen track, a nationally recognized race car track that was in bankruptcy.

Rather than lose a valuable tourist attraction, the company bought the track, about 20 minutes from Corning, and it now generates some $100 million in area revenue.

Along with a coalition of smaller businesses in the area, the company is spearheading an effort to plan Corning's future: a $127 million highway bypass around town, more development for Market Street and support for a project that will lure high-technology entrepreneurs to the area.

The Family Tradition The ongoing investment in the town of Corning can be traced directly to the long line of Houghtons who have controlled the company for more than a century.

Corning Inc. Chairman "Jamie" Houghton, an unpretentious booster of his hometown, is the great-great grandson of Amory Houghton, who brought his glassmaking operation to Corning from Brooklyn in 1868.

Though the family keeps a low profile, the current chairman is well-known around the small city, and pictures of his older brother Amory Jr., or "Amo," are plastered everywhere, advertising his reelection bid for the House of Representatives. Amo also used to be chairman of the company.

About 25 percent of Corning stock is in "friendly" hands and it is believed that Houghton family members account for 15 percent of that total.

That may be comforting to those who hope to keep Corning in Corning forever. Less certain is whether another Houghton will run the company after "Jamie" Houghton retires.

"Subconsciously, we always worry Corning will leave," said John Benjamin, president of Corning Intown Futures, a nonprofit development corporation that has the company on its board of directors. "You're always worried a business will leave."

Houghton said that Corning, which has its major engineering and research facilities in the area, will stay and eventually build a new headquarters building across the Chemung River.

Though the company struggled in the early 1980s, what has helped it prosper are diversification efforts and joint ventures. Two of the company's biggest growth areas are in optical fibers and diagnostic lab testing. It now has $2.4 billion in annual revenue.

"Corning has been more successful than most in keeping itself alive in its town. Corning has been a fortunate, adept survivor," said Michael R. Haines, an expert on company towns at Colgate University.

And the company's address may turn out to be an asset in the future as some professionals quit the rat race and look for a more peaceful corporate existence. In Corning's case, that includes Victorian homes with sweeping verandas, short commutes, safe streets and clean air.

"Areas like Corning will be the wave of the future," said David B. Luther, senior vice president and corporate director of quality for Corning. "Our version of a traffic jam is that the light turns red on the way to work."