LINTON, N.D. -- Cattle huddle in snowy draws against the sting of an Alberta clipper mean enough to bristle your nose hairs. Meanwhile, up the road in a warm aluminum building, 82 employees of Rosenbluth Travel cheerily go about their work.
The building is a former farm implement dealership refurbished in beige-toned office modern. And the employees, called associates by the company, are smartly dressed in business outfits -- no jeans, down vests or polyester pantsuits here.
"People have such preconceived notions about rural North Dakota. It's up to us to dispel those notions," said Sharon Jangula, 34, who manages this brigade of travel data processors.
And dispel them they have. Hal Rosenbluth, president of the Philadelphia-based company, sings the praises of the work force he found here two years ago. As a result, Linton, a town of 1,460 in south-central North Dakota, has become a star success story in the arrival of telecommunications-based businesses to the rural Midwest.
"We think they're the future human resource of corporate America," Rosenbluth said of rural workers like his Linton employees. "There is virtually no absenteeism or turnover. We found a lot of fine people looking for the opportunity to be the best they can be."
Likewise, upper Midwest development officials are beginning to see telecommunications-based businesses -- data processing, telemarketing and customer and business services -- as a major source of future jobs. In the last few years, such companies have become some of the biggest employers in a number of towns in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and other states.
Telecommunications long have been hailed as having as dramatic a potential for rural America in the 1990s as did railroads in the 1870s, and interstate highways in the 1950s.
Fiber optics, fast electronic switching systems, and powerful user-friendly desktop computers mean that in both word and image, New York and Utah, Philadelphia and North Dakota are just nanoseconds apart.
"There are a tremendous number of things that require people sitting at computer terminals. But it doesn't really matter where the terminals are," said Abner Womack, a rural economist at the University of Missouri.
Farm-based communities with their stable families and lower costs give the rural Midwest an advantage that hasn't been fully discovered yet, he said.
Rosenbluth Travel has 450 branch offices. Rosenbluth estimates he saves at least 20 percent in operating costs at his Linton office compared with his other offices nationwide. He pays his Linton employees $5 to $5.25 an hour, which is competitive in the area. He also provides a 401(k) savings program, and, most valued of all to the staff, partial health coverage.
"Most businesses in town, they just don't have that capacity," said Lisa Weiser, a Rosenbluth employee.
Linton is promoted by its Chamber of Commerce as the "belt buckle of the Dakotas ...where the cattle are fat and the fish are floppin'."
But three years of drought put some citizens in a quandary. "Before Rosenbluth, they didn't know where to turn," Wieser said. "If they didn't have a job or their farm, they were thinking of moving to the city."
Rosenbluth came to Linton in 1988 after watching televised reports of the drought's effects on North Dakota. He committed himself to a three-month project that would give work to 30 or 40 local residents. It was done in 1 1/2 months.
"We said, 'Hey, we're going to convince you to stay.' We told him how much we needed him," said Jim Weisser, director of Linton's development committee.
Today, the town feels the difference of a $1 million-a-year payroll. And residents say the effect of the jobs on the local employees, most of whom are married to farmers, is palpable.
"For them it's been a godsend. It's brought a lot of pride back to the farm," said Clinton Sauter, a farmer who also makes deliveries for Duke's Pizza. "The morale they get there, they take that home with them. They're in great spirits and that extends to the whole town."
The rural Midwest is attractive to such companies because of its location in the central time zone, which gives longer telephone access to both coasts; the growing spread of fiber optics telephone lines in the region; and the neutral accent and high education level of its residents. North Dakota boasts a high school dropout rate of less than 2 percent and a higher education rate of more than 70 percent.
But development specialists caution against making telecommunications a 1990s version of the smokestack chasing of the 1970s, when tax breaks were given for jobs that sometimes proved short-lived.
Telecommunications firms can go as easily as they come, said Marty Strange, director of the Center for Rural Affairs, which conducted a study of economic development in several rural Midwest counties.
"They are particularly mobile," he said. "They don't require much floor space and heat. Everything is movable. If they come for tax incentives, they will leave just as quickly when they get a better deal, or have exhausted local tax breaks."
Rosenbluth Travel shows no signs of moving from Linton. In fact, the company, which did $1.3 billion in sales last year, is now building a $1 million corporate retreat and farm on a bluff west of Linton, overlooking the Missouri River.
Rosenbluth's arrival in Linton also has had a spinoff effect elsewhere in the state. At his prompting, U.S. Health Care, another Philadelphia-based company, got a state loan and moved its claims processing operation to Bismarck, where up to 200 people will be employed.
Choice Inns has located its reservations operation in Minot, where it may eventually employ up to 300. Impact, a subscriptions telemarketing firm, will set up shop in Grafton, in the eastern part of the state, and will employ 25. And at least three more telecommunications operations are being courted, said William Davis, director of industrial development for the commission.
This makes sense to Sharon Jangula, who used to be the bookkeeper and office manager at the John Deere implement agency in Linton, the same building she now works in with Rosenbluth Travel.
"This kind of business," she said, "it's got to be the future we're looking at."