If you assume the existence of smooth structure on a noncompact surface then it is easy to show the existence of a proper morse function with no local maximum.This shows that the surface is homotopic to a one dim CW complex. This is the smooth version of Igor's answer.
EDIT BY ANDY PUTMAN: Mohan isn't registered and thus isn't able to comment, but he sent me an email with more details. The result is true in all dimensions : any noncompact smooth n-manifold is homotopy equivalent to an n-1 complex. The key is to construct a strictly subharmonic morse exhaustion function. The subharmonicity prevents the function from having local maxima. Details of this can be found in his paper "Elementary Construction of Exhausting Subsolutions of Ellitpic Operators", which was joint with Napier and was published in L’Enseignement Math´ematique, t. 50 (2004), p. 1–24.