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The Commons
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David Shaw/The Commons

Joseph Cincotta and Julie Lineberger have long operated their LineSync Architecture business from Wilmington, and the couple is now at work launching a new venture, Wheel Pad.

Business

A conversation with Julie Lineberger and Joseph Cincotta

Two Harvard alums build dreams that come true with LineSync Architecture and their newest venture, Wheel Pad

This series of interviews is supplied to The Commons by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (brattleborodevelopment.com), the regional development corporation tasked with helping businesses start up in Windham County. These interviews are intended to explore the experience of starting a business in the Windham County region, looking at how individual business owners choose to be in southern Vermont, as well as their challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and memorable celebrations.

The interviews are designed, in the words of the BDCC, “to inspire those sitting on the sidelines while reminding others they are not alone, that yes, you can open a successful business in southern Vermont.”

Interviewer Jerry Goldberg, who runs his marketing and communications firm, Goldberg Creative Marketing, in Brattleboro, worked as a communications executive for many years at CBS in both New York and Los Angeles. Later, in Brattleboro, he headed communications at World Learning and from 2005 to 2013 served as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Originally published in The Commons issue #384 (Wednesday, November 23, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.



WILMINGTON—It’s almost impossible to have spent eight years at the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce without keeping up to speed on the work of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility — an organization whose mission is “to foster a business ethic in Vermont that recognizes the opportunity and responsibility of the business community to set a high standard for protecting the natural, human, and economic environment of our citizens.”

For eight years as a member and four as chair of the VBSR board, Julie Lineberger, owner of LineSync Architecture, proved to be an indefatigable advocate. I saw her in action in so many rooms, at so many forums — whenever there was a community need to get something important done.

But she has worn other hats as well. Along with her husband Joseph Cincotta — LineSync’s principal architect — she’s put their business where their hearts are for 30 years, including the 28 years they’ve been in southern Vermont.

So I was both delighted and eager to hear not only about LineSync, but also Lineberger and Cincotta’s new venture, Wheel Pad L3C, which manufactures “temporary universally-accessible housing that is both excellent quality and eco-friendly,” according to the new venture’s website.

Linking up at the LineSync/Wheel Pad offices in a beautifully designed old clapboard farmhouse on Castle Hill just steps south of South Main Street proved once again that magic does happen behind so many picket fences throughout our corner of Vermont.

Cincotta was facing a hard deadline and would hopefully catch up with me later, so Lineberger and I started.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: Julie, please tell me how you got here. Take us on your journey.

Julie Lineberger: I’m from Los Angeles — a fifth-generation Californian. I always thought I’d live there forever. I loved the ocean, the mountains, the desert — all within a short drive. I was a true California girl.

J.G.: I lived in L.A. for 11 years. I get it.

J.L.: In 1975, I enrolled in the University of California San Diego to major in sociology and communications as well as to earn a bilingual teaching credential. In my third year, I studied abroad at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

After graduation, one of my UCSD professors was tapped for a United Nations Development Programme research project in Papua, New Guinea. He arranged for me to assist in evaluating the trial of a mathematics curriculum he developed.

When I got back to San Diego, María Díaz, the woman I student-taught under, declared, “You should be at Harvard.” I shook my head and laughed, “Harvard. Yeah, right.” She would not let me leave her house until we completed the application that weekend.

In early spring, I received an acceptance letter dated April 1. I thought that was the cruelest April Fools’ joke anyone ever played on me. However, it was real. At the new student orientation, we learned two-thirds of the students had the same reaction.

J.G.: What were you majoring in this time?

J.L.: International education.

The day I drove to the Cronkhite Graduate Center, the second person I met was Joseph, who was enrolling at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Two years through his 3{1/2}-year program, Joseph was selected to work on a major project in the Sultanate of Oman. It was an incredible opportunity for him. He left me.

So what’s a girl to do? I took a job on the Thai-Cambodian border to work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at Khao I Dang!

J.G.: What prompted you to seek out that kind of work? Had you always been a student of how life is for those who haven’t enjoyed the blessings you have?

J.L.: I suppose I have. My parents were Bahá’í, and our home was filled with people from all over the world — people who, like my mom and dad, were devoted to serving humanity. Meeting them instilled in me a passion for promoting universal education and social responsibility on a worldwide scale.

I yearned to travel and to live and work in another place. So my wish had come true! There I was, in my mid-20s, in charge of a 10,000-student school system in a camp of 100,000 displaced people. I was liaison between the teachers, the camp residents, and the Thai military that ran the camp.

J.G.: Unfathomable, Julie. There’s so much to learn when we step outside our normal surround. And the learning never stops.

J.L.: Never, thank goodness. By the time my job at Khao I Dang ended in January 1985, Joseph and I were engaged to be married that October. We were headed to Oman for him to finish his project and to plan a wedding.

At the time, however, Oman did not have tourist visas, and a single woman was not permitted to enter the country without a chaperone.

Thus, Joseph and I had a secret legal February wedding in Thailand, followed by our real October wedding with family back in the States. After a year teaching at the Sultan’s School, Joseph and I returned to Cambridge for him to complete his master of architecture degree. I worked for the Cambridge Court Clinic, Joseph studied, and we shared care of our new daughter, Jaslyn, who was born in 1986.

Architects have long hours, and we noticed very few remained married to their first wives. So I thought, “Well, maybe we should go into business together.”

Switching from a non-profit to a for-profit mentality took time, but we figured out how to make it work — and that included relocating from Cambridge.

J.G.: Time for my favorite question: Why Vermont?

J.L.: Joseph’s family built a house on Chimney Hill in Wilmington which they rented out to skiers and used the rest of the year. Jaslyn was nearly 2, and southern Vermont seemed like the best place to raise a family.

The goal for our architectural firm was to create a practice that focused on sustainability, treating our employees well, and giving back to our community.

At the time, “green” was still just a color, but the social responsibility leaders were in Vermont. We were into alternative energy sources. We were into social responsibility, as it came to be known. And that included paying our interns and all our employees for every hour worked — a practice not always adhered to in many firms.

Most of our Cambridge colleagues laughed and predicted we’d be out of business in five years. Well, it’s been 30.

J.G.: What made being here feel right to you?

J.L.: Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. They, too, were just setting up, so we kind of grew together. We also became members of what was then called Co-op America, now known as Green America. We’d found people who believed in what we believed in: that, yes, you could do well by doing good.

J.G.: When was this?

J.L.: September 1988. About a week after we got here and set up the business, the housing market fell, and we had to scramble!

I worked for the Deerfield Valley News — interviewing people and editing my pieces for publication in between marketing LineSync Architecture. Joseph designed all types of projects in the Deerfield Valley. In 1989, Jadria, our second daughter, was born in Whitingham.

J.G.: So was this Vermont sojourn going to be “it” for the long haul?

J.L.: Yes and no. At first, we figured we’d be here for five, maybe 10 years — as long as Joseph’s grandparents were alive — and we’d go from there. But Joseph’s grandfather lived to be 100! By then we were totally ensconced in, and in love with, our community.

J.G.: How did an L.A. girl find happiness in a super-rural New England setting?

J.L.: You mean in a one-stoplight town?

J.G.: Now that you’ve put it that way — yes.

J.L.: My mother died when I was 10. Her dream before she passed was that my dad would move my two sisters and me from the heart of Los Angeles into a smaller community — someplace safe and nurturing.

In 1967, he bought us a house out in the San Gabriel Valley, 30 miles east of the city proper. We purchased our eggs from the woman across the street, who also became our piano teacher. My sisters boarded the horse my father had bought for them on her property.

So coming to a rural community like Wilmington wasn’t such a shock. It felt in many ways like home.

* * *

There was a tentative knocking at the door. It was Joseph Cincotta. Although his time was short — it was, after all, the heart of a busy afternoon, and he was still hard at task — his timing was perfect. He agreed to chat a bit.

* * *

J.G.: Joseph, where are you from and how/why did you decide to become an architect?

Joseph Cincotta: I speak “the Queens English.” I’m a New Yorker!

I wanted to be an architect as early as kindergarten. I can remember teachers asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most of the boys would say something like “a policeman” or “a fireman.” I would say “architect.” I can still see the stunned adult faces. Like, “Who is this child?”

JFK International Airport wasn’t too far from our house. I’d beg my parents to take me there. There were so many cool terminals — especially TWA’s. I was fascinated by those soaring wings. Queens wasn’t loaded with memorable buildings, so I’d beg them to take me to the city, too — Manhattan.

As high school loomed, I already knew that my local school wasn’t going to do it for me. Fortunately, New York City has several specialized high schools — for science, for music and art, and the like.

I enrolled in Brooklyn Technical High School, and that changed my life. For the first time, I couldn’t get by with whatever smarts I thought I had. I had to work hard.

J.G.: Julie told me about setting up your first office in Cambridge and then making the carefully considered choice to leave. Has your decision to come here proven to have been the right one?

J.C.: It sure has. I’m very fulfilled — though perhaps not as well known as I thought I’d be by now. The work I’ve been able to do has been rewarding emotionally and artistically.

More often than not, I’ve had clients who recognized how I could make their dreams take shape. They’ve trusted me to take a not-so-worn path and try things. I’ve done that, and it’s worked.

You’re entrusted with taking a whole range of objects and products — all this kind of cornucopia of things — and bringing them together in a cohesive, hopefully useful and beautiful way. That’s really what an architect does.

J.G.: Obviously, southern Vermont has worked for you. What would you tell, say, an architect — or any professional, or anyone with a business or an idea for one — about doing their thing here?

J.C.: Follow your bliss. Figure out what that means for you in your heart, in your gut, and follow it — because that’s what you’re good at. If you do what you’re good at, nothing will stop you.

As to doing it from here, people who need to find you will find you. I really believe that if you’re doing what you love, the people who you’re supposed to meet will cross your path, and you’ll build wonder together.

I know students from my time at Harvard who are working in big cities earning not double but maybe close to triple what I’m earning a year. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs in a New York minute. I have a joy in my life that I don’t think they have. And you can’t buy joy.

I just know that I have an amazing life. Julie and I travel a lot. I see a lot of architecture. And we get to live here.

J.G.: One of our challenges in this part of New England is finding qualified candidates for many of the jobs that become available. How has that been for you?

J.C.: When job seekers meet us, see how we live, and learn how we work, they either get it or they don’t. It’s a self-selecting process, I guess.

Basically, I’m a New Yorker in Vermont, right? I still have the aspirations to be the best I can be. I love challenging myself. I attract people who do the same.

J.G.: How many employees are there at LineSync?

J.L.: Including Joseph and me, there are nine of us at the moment. Three are native Vermonters.

J.G.: So what’s hot at LineSync today?

J.C.: I’d have to say the Mount Snow project.

J.G.: How’d that happen for you?

J.C.: Julie’s how. She’d heard about the Greening of Mount Snow master plan that had been produced by a Boston firm under a former resort leadership. She didn’t see anything happening, so she contacted the new owner and invited him to come see us.

He said, “I didn’t even know there was an architecture firm in the Valley, so yes, I’d be happy to come by.”

I’ll never forget it. He walked in and looked around. He saw the reclaimed timbers from the farm that used to stand there. He saw the way we used the shapes and created nooks and crannies and all the textures. I watched his eyes look up, down, and sideways. He just did a complete circle looking around, and then he shook my hand.

J.G.: Obviously, he hadn’t expected to find what he did.

J.C.: The idea of working on a major resort like Mount Snow is thrilling. The mountain is a critical part of the local economy. Its success is our success.

We’re going to design the most energy-efficient, most beautiful resort. We’ll use material native to the area — native woods and native finishes — to create a resort that looks like it was made today and not 100 years ago.

We are going to do an authentic homage, today. The client really appreciated that.

J.G.: Let’s talk about the social implications of being here.

J.C.: One’s communities in New York, Boston — even Cambridge — are intentional communities. You tend to seek out the people who think like you. It’s sort of tribal — your group in the great sea of groups. In Vermont, you end up building community with the people who happen to be nearby — farther afield isn’t easy. There are a lot of cold and icy days and nights.

You form a community that’s ironically more diverse than it would be in Manhattan. It’ll include people with different backgrounds, with different ways of thinking, from different age groups. It’s also going to include people with widely varying levels of economic stability.

Some of our friends are multimillionaires and some barely make it paycheck to paycheck. And we see them at the same dinner parties!

So your conversations are rich. You end up talking about life, about town and state and regional issues that might contrast — might challenge — your assumptions. You grow from that.

I get a kick out of a local saying that if you or someone in your family gets the flu, a pot of chicken soup will appear on your doorstep. That’s not myth. That happens.

So shame on you if you’re living in Vermont and haven’t found how rich and wonderful it can be. It’s not as easy, maybe, as in a big city. You may have to work for it. But if you have the desire to do that, you will be rewarded.

J.G.: Real quick, Joseph, before you have to go, I wanted to ask you and Julie together about rearing your girls here. How’d that work?

J.C.: It was mostly ideal. The kids were safe, they had good friends, and there was a lot for them to do. There was one adjustment, however — for all of us.

Julie and I were public school kids — she in L.A. and me in New York City. So we were committed to seeing our girls through that public-school experience. At one point we realized that their potential wasn’t being realized as fully as they deserved, so we enrolled them in a day school about a half hour from home. They thrived. One went on to Bates College in Maine and the other to Beloit College in Wisconsin. I’d say they did very well.

They’re great kids. We’re so proud of them. They still loved living here and kept their friends from town. They got the best of both worlds.

J.G.: Thanks, Joseph. So, Julie. Let’s talk about Wheel Pad. What’s the story behind it?

J.L.: When we first came here in ’88, we met and clicked with a family named Poor — Maria and Bob and their boys, Travis and Riley. Eventually, the Poors moved to Colorado, where Riley became this amazing videographer specializing in covering extreme sports.

Riley was creating a documentary on Simon Dumont the year Dumont won the superpipe at the Winter Dew Tour at Mount Snow in 2009. We were all excited about “our” Riley, a big shot!

The day after the games ended, Riley and his dad, Bob, who’d come all the way from Colorado, were expected at our house for brunch. The phone rang, and it was Bob, telling us that Riley had had a serious swimming pool accident and was in the hospital.

Riley survived the accident, which nearly killed him. And although he went through many surgeries and long periods of rehab in Colorado, the fact remained that he was tetraplegic.

One good thing: Shortly before the accident, Nike had offered Riley a job producing videos. Well, they honored their commitment to him so, as soon as he was able, Riley left rehab and moved to Portland, Oregon.

J.G.: I’ll remember that about Nike the next time I need a pair of shoes or workout stuff!

J.L.: Unfortunately, he couldn’t find accessible housing that allowed a caregiver to assist him in the shower. He was forced to live in a hotel room for eight months until a suitable apartment became available.

When one did and he could finally breathe, he was able to ask himself what a long-term solution to his problem would look like. He ended up buying a house, and then Joseph and the LineSync Architecture team worked in conjunction with Riley’s dad, Bob, to make it universally accessible.

In the middle of the design phase, Joseph turned to Riley and said: “What if there was an accessible bedroom and bathroom that could have attached to your mom’s house or your brother’s house so that instead of being isolated in a hotel room, you could have wheeled in to take your meals and been supported by family while you figured out your long-term solution?”

J.G.: Welcome to the world, Wheel Pad!

J.L.: Well, yes — and no.

The idea was born in 2010 when Riley, Joseph, and I formed a partnership. Riley’s a minority owner of Wheel Pad. He still advises us.

But we didn’t move ahead with it until last year, when Orly Munzing, executive director of Strolling of the Heifers, suggested we enter the BDCC/Strolling of the Heifers Business Plan Competition.

I was like, “Aiee! There are only a couple weeks left to pull a proposal together and get it in!” With Joseph’s encouragement, I did just that, entered and — yikes — won! That gave us $10,000.

Suddenly, we knew that if the competition’s judges thought Wheel Pad was a good idea, if Joseph and I thought it was a good idea, if Riley — who knew better than any of us — thought it was a good idea, and if everyone we talked to said, “You know, had there been one of these for my uncle, or my grandmother or...,” we had a great idea.

Using the invaluable advice and critique we received during the competition, I fleshed out and refined our business plan, entered more competitions, and ended up winning all but one.

J.G.: At the risk of sounding like Debbie Downer here, I have to ask: Which one did you lose?

J.L.: The competition was InnovateHER. It focused on ideas for products for women. I thought, Oh, my god, women do the majority of the caretaking. Entering this one would be fantastic. Anyway, the winner was Mamava, which makes portable nursing stations used in arenas, hospitals, and hotels.

But there was good news for us. A man in the audience from Norwich University in upstate Vermont told us that Norwich’s project management and architecture students take on a construction project every year and that Wheel Pad’s prototype should be it.

The Norwich students did the majority of the work executing Joseph’s design beautifully. So did we really lose? I don’t think so.

The last competition we won was LaunchVT up in Burlington. That came with a very good prize.

J.G.: Who do you see as the main clients for a Wheel Pad unit?

J.L.: First, we want to help change the way injured veterans come home. The second-largest market group is the elderly, including folks needing hospice care.

It’s interesting that the group that inspired Wheel Pad — people like Riley with spinal-cord injuries — is probably the smallest of our likely markets. But as medical technology keeps improving, more and more people are living with injuries and will need special housing options.

I started an Indiegogo generosity campaign, and I’m accepting donations for this model that I’m going to donate to a southern Vermont family. When that family no longer needs it, we’ll refurbish the unit and send it to another southern Vermont family, so it’ll be on perpetual loan.

J.G.: Excellent. Now, I read on the Wheel Pad website about your plans for an employee-owned manufacturing facility.

J.L.: Our plan is to sub out production of our second Wheel Pad starting in January or February 2017 and to have all Wheel Pad manufacturing done here in Wilmington within three to five years.

We’re an economically depressed area. We had some pretty good manufacturers that we lost to other communities. We’ve got to change that — to start building back up.

J.G.: If you build it here, you’ll have to protect it so it stays here, right? How will you do that?

J.L.: I’ve incorporated Wheel Pad as an L3C — a low-income limited liability company. That way, investors can’t come in and say, “OK, I want to sell this for a zillion bucks.”

It’s not about the profit. It’s about healthy compensation and benefits for everyone and about producing an affordable product for those who need it.

J.G.: What about staffing?

J.L.: I have a list of some 15-20 viable employees.

J.G.: How’d you manage that?

J.L.: I can’t help but think it’s the social responsibility factor. Young people today are increasingly more interested in fairness for all than in fat bank accounts for some. They’re amazing — idealistic, altruistic, and totally committed to the common good.

J.G.: The young throughout our region are starved for opportunity and certainly for access to career information. What relationship do you have — through either LineSync or now Wheel Pad — with the local schools and other institutions?

J.L.: Well, we participate whenever asked in Career Days at Twin Valley High School (serving Wilmington and Whitingham), the Marlboro and Deerfield Valley elementary schools, and at Brattleboro Union High School.

We judge competitions, such as when students build bridges out of toothpicks and the annual Lego competition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Joseph’s a regular at that one.

And we always have a high school intern. One, Adam Richter, started with us in his sophomore year in a six-week program, and he then came as a summer intern in his junior and senior years. He’s now at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and he came back this summer as our college intern.

Incidentally, all our summer interns last year were native Vermonters.

J.G.: Vermont has this sort of “anti-business” reputation —

J.L.: I’ve got to say I think Vermont is good for business. The state has a powerful brand. People want to be here. They want to invest in our communities.

If you do your homework, it’s not difficult to find the support you need to make it work. A big plus is having easy access to your municipal managers and to your representatives in Montpelier — the lawmakers, the decision makers.

And, finally, Vermont is committed to social responsibility. Proof of that is that Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility is a respected state partner. I’ve testified often up at the Statehouse. VBSR is at the table.

J.G.: Are you still connected with them?

J.L.: Yes, but not as a board member. In early 2013, I joined the board of Green America, which does for the whole country what VBSR does for Vermont. I was named board chair later that year. I’ve done a lot of lobbying down in D.C. since.

J.G.: Such good exposure for Vermont. Thank you — and thanks to you and Joseph for building businesses with such integrity.

J.L.: Thank you. Putting the journey all together was fun. Wow!

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