COLUMN ONE : Data Age's Boon in the Boonies : With fiber optic cables strung across the prairie, farm towns are turning into telecommunications hubs. Companies harvest efficient labor and farmers reap needed income.


The only historic marker hereabouts is for the birthplace of Lawrence Welk a few miles down the road. But there ought to be another where the underground fiber optic cable snakes into town:

"Here, the transcontinental electronic highway was more or less completed in 1990 A.D."

Certainly there's work yet to be done on the wiring of America. But Linton, population 1,500, is a pretty good symbol of the arrival of the information economy in what people are starting to call the American Outback, the lonesome and hard-pressed Great Plains.

In lieu of rain during the soul-rattling 1988 drought, a large corporate travel agency based in Philadelphia dropped out of the big sky here with an unsolicited offer of 20 temporary data processing jobs.

It was a gesture to help Linton's farm families through the hard times, while punching a backlog of 35,000 client profiles into the computers. Accustomed to much harder work, the keyboard rookies soon ran out of things to do, suggesting a different kind of North Dakota joke than the ones told by neighboring Montanans:

"How long does it take a North Dakotan to do three months' worth of work?"

"About a month and a half."

Rosenbluth Travel, the nation's third-largest travel firm, knew it had stumbled onto something good. So after a delay in getting the all-important fiber optic cable into Linton, Rosenbluth moved a dozen corporate functions here permanently.

Today, in a converted tractor dealership on the edge of Linton, nearly 200 people--mainly farm wives--are pecking away at Rosenbluth's computers and talking by phone with corporate travel clients from across the nation. Their work is practically perfect, turnover is zero, absenteeism is too low to be charted.

"I think their initiative and teamwork come from the farm. It's ingrained in these people," says Diane Peters, a Rosenbluth executive. "In other places, finding people like this is like finding a needle in a haystack."

Rosenbluth's arrival is part of a phenomenon that is lifting spirits in pockets of rural America: A new generation of telecommunications is reaching across the nation's remote landscapes, providing jobs, diversifying the perilous farm economy and alleviating the economic isolation that sociologists call "the tyranny of distance."

The technology of real-time communication between distant computers has combined with the advantages of the mid-continent time zone, the bland and spare Midwestern manner of speaking (Southerners are considered too chatty), and a cheap, available, eager, well-educated labor pool to link some forgotten places with expanding cogs in the world's economy.

From the relative metropolises of Omaha, well-established center of the industry that peddles things over the telephone, and Sioux Falls, S.D., which lured an entire credit-card industry to its friendly environs in the early 1980s, these sorts of jobs are now spreading to smaller, more remote burgs and transforming them into information hubs. A few examples:

--Fiber optics just reached the dirt-poor Indian town of Belcourt, N.D., a few miles from the Canadian border, where more than 100 members of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa are processing data for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and numerous other clients at $6 an hour and up. Sales by the Indian-owned Uniband firm--which says it made just seven errors in 11 million keystrokes for the IRS--will exceed $3.5 million this year.

--Nearly 300 people in Minot, N.D., are manning the toll-free phone lines for Choice Hotels Inc., one of the world's biggest hotel chains, headquartered in Silver Spring, Md. For Minot, population 35,000, worried about the fate of the nearby air base, it is a significant boon.

--A big health maintenance organization, U.S. Health Care of Philadelphia, opened a major claims processing shop in Bismarck, N.D., two years ago and recently announced it will double the staff to nearly 500. A company executive explained: "If the Japanese had come to North Dakota to see what a real American worker is, they would have shut their mouths."

--A telemarketer in Omaha, SITEL Corp., has expanded into five small Iowa towns where 500 people are working the phones for clients ranging from political parties to insurance peddlers. And Impact Telemarketing Inc. of Woodbury, N.J., opened an office last year in little Grafton, N.D., hiring 40 locals. Running out of workers there, it will open offices this month in the eastern North Dakota farm hamlets of Mayville and Cooperstown.

Meanwhile, Rosenbluth Travel, buoyed by operating costs a third less than it is accustomed to, plans to move still more corporate work out this way. It is now looking for a second North Dakota site and possibly a third rural outpost.

The company has erected a $1-million corporate retreat here overlooking the Missouri River, close to the route of explorers Lewis and Clark. And owner Hal Rosenbluth, declaring he "fell in love with the people," bought himself some cowboy boots and built a nearby vacation home.

Rosenbluth himself, a folk hero in these parts, has become a missionary as well, urging other business executives to take a look and declaring that corporate and rural America need each other. Better these jobs stay in America than go offshore, he adds.

"There's this tremendous human resource that's gone unnoticed because of the ethnocentricity in corporate decision-making," he says.

To be sure, some of this "back shop" work is the kind sometimes derided as exploitative, better suited to, say, Barbados. The typical starting wage of $5 an hour is nothing to write home about. Meanwhile, jobs gained in the hinterlands often mean jobs lost somewhere else.

Such jobs will never have more than a supporting role in these agriculture- and natural resource-based communities, offering merely a cushion against the blows delivered by a farm economy that needs fewer and fewer people every day.

And many are the kind of jobs that can be packed up and moved overnight. While state and local officials scramble to make their towns attractive to would-be employers with the usual array of incentives, they know their fortunes can be reversed on a dime by some absentee corporate accountant.

But if anyone's being exploited in these back shops of the Outback, they would like more of it.

This is a region of modest expectations and modest realities. A North Dakota State University study found that the new telecommunication wages and benefits, including health insurance that many farm folks can't afford on their own, are actually better than those offered by local manufacturing jobs.

And in an area plagued for decades by the flight of its young people--a region whose very cartographic existence was denied when Rand McNally, to save paper, recently omitted the Dakotas from an atlas--it can restore a community's self-esteem.

"It's given us credibility. We really feel blessed. We can say, 'Hey, look at us. We can be very valuable.' We've proven ourselves to the world," says Paul Leier, an assistant vice president at the First National Bank of Linton.

After a decade of farm foreclosures that drove the Emmons County population down 20% to 4,800, local school enrollment has stabilized, the motel count has tripled to three, business at Ed's Hardware has soared 40%, local school employees got group health insurance just like Rosenbluth Travel, and a second doctor has come to town.

Most gratifying, family farms have stayed in the family.

Rosenbluth supervisor Susan Horner and her husband, John, a top-rated dairy farmer who is stuck with the same milk prices he got in the 1970s, just took their first vacation in five years. Next is a renovation of their time-worn farmhouse, built two Horner generations ago. Susan, meanwhile, is building a career in addition to her unpaid roles as farmer and mother of four.

"I can't even express in words what it's meant to me," she says. "And it's certainly made a tremendous difference to the town. It's brought a lot of young blood to the community. Before, every fifth business place was closed down. It was very depressing. Now I drive past Don's Motel and see this line of cars and I wonder, 'Who are all these people'?"

While second jobs have long been necessary for the survival of family farms, those jobs have typically been tied to the same shrinking agricultural economy. Telecommunications is a gateway to diversification of the first order, to jobs in banking, travel, marketing and other service sectors. Such fields also offer far more opportunity for women than does the traditional farming community, economists note.

"It's a way for rural towns to share in the high-tech economy," says F. Larry Leistritz, a professor of agricultural economics at North Dakota State in Fargo.

Says Ron Laverdure, a Chippewa computer scientist who manages the Uniband data processing firm in Belcourt, where the jobless rate is 60%: "I think the potential is unlimited. It virtually eliminates the isolation factor."

Rosenbluth, a fourth-generation Philadelphian who couldn't have found North Dakota five years ago, is sold on maintaining the family farm as a source of traditional values. He says the Great Plains "just need a second source of income that's not agriculturally dependent. We can demonstrate convincingly that the companies providing that income opportunity will reap great benefits."

If they can be persuaded to take a look.

"There's a lot of resistance," says Rosenbluth, whose century-old, family owned travel company has more than 500 offices and $1.3 billion in sales. "They give you kind of a funny look."

The region's recognition that certain jobs can be performed anywhere dates to 1980, a time of double-digit interest rates, when the state of South Dakota eliminated its usury laws to lure Citicorp's credit card operation from New York City to the meat-packing city of Sioux Falls. Today, it is the nation's credit card capital.

Citibank alone has 2,800 employees in Sioux Falls. Seventeen million Americans send some $1.5 billion in Visa and MasterCard payments there every month, enough to require an asterisk in the regional reports of the Federal Reserve System.

At least half a dozen other credit card operations have followed, making that industry South Dakota's biggest employer, with nearly 5,000 workers. Other phone- and computer-based businesses, notably mail-order firms and airline frequent-flier offices, have also arrived in the state.

The growth has driven unemployment so low--currently 2.6% in Sioux Falls--that the city's development arm this year actually advertised for workers in such places as Fresno, Calif., and Toledo, Ohio. About 2,000 voiced interest, says the city, basking in its recent coronation by Money magazine as this year's best place in America to live.

But this ongoing worker shortage--and the resulting upward pressure on wages in such cities as Omaha and Sioux Falls--has helped push new business into more remote communities in search of labor, says Leistritz.

So when Choice Hotels--owner of Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and five other national chains--needed a second toll-free reservation operation, the operator of the Comfort Inn in Minot (pronounced My-not), N.D., introduced company President Jerry Petitt to the town's slogan: "Why not Minot?"

Today, nearly 300 North Dakotans, about 60% of them working full time, are arranging 5 million hotel reservations a year in Minot. It is the chain's most efficient and low-cost operation. Now the company needs to expand again and is trying to decide where.

Why not Minot?

"It's nice to be a big fish in a small pond, but we're now hiring from 60 and 70 miles away," Petitt says. "We don't want to use up all the available work force. But our experience has been so good that Minot has at least an even chance."

To lure others, officials here and in neighboring states are rushing to pave the way technologically, a process often complicated by the array of small, private telephone companies that serve remote areas. Gov. George Sinner has a "Connecting North Dakota" task force working on this.

The state already has more than 4,600 miles of fiber optic cable, the type of line needed to handle the volume and quality of voice and digital signals demanded by these new employers.

"That's a lot of fiber," says Vivian Dockter, a spokeswoman for regional telephone company US West in Fargo, N.D.

Executives who do find their way here are confronted with the practical charms of the Outback, which may or may not offset such bald realities as the average January temperature of 8 degrees. Or the 30-inch Halloween snowstorm that welcomed Detroit-based Rosenbluth executive Colleen McGuffin last year.

Arriving as the new manager of the Linton operation, she and her husband brushed off the snowflakes, bought a house that made their mortgage payment smaller than their car payment, and enrolled their kids in a public school that was farther along academically than the private Michigan school they'd just left.

"I love it," McGuffin says.

Duke Rosendahl, a Linton native whose grandfather made his way here from pre-revolutionary Russia, says that except for the weather, there just isn't much to worry about. "Like Hemingway says, this is one of those places where the nights are safer than the days."

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