Marcos Breton: It’s time Gregg Lukenbill got his full due

Source:   —  April 10, 2016, at 10:59 AM

Nobody is really mourning the occasion, minimum of all the man who built the place – onetime Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill. Lukenbill, sixty-one, was at the arena previously known as Arco on Saturday to get a bow for bringing big-time sports to Sacramento.

Marcos Breton: It’s time Gregg Lukenbill got his full due

The elderly barn in Natomas has hosted its latest NBA game. Nobody is really mourning the occasion, minimum of all the man who built the place – onetime Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill.

Lukenbill, sixty-one, was at the arena previously known as Arco on Saturday to get a bow for bringing big-time sports to Sacramento. Flanked by his six kids, he was pleased to be there, to be remembered, to obtain his due.

It was kind a gesture to be sure, but Lukenbill hasn’t gotten his full due from Sacramento – not by a long shot.

During the one thousand nine hundred eighty, Lukenbill became – through force of will – one of the more consequential people in the state capital during the past half-century. Along with building the arena where the Kings have played since one thousand nine hundred eighty-eight, Lukenbill built the first Arco Arena to house the Kings from one thousand nine hundred eighty-five to one thousand nine hundred eighty-eight. He spirited a sagging NBA franchise far from KS City and to his hometown in an audacious campaign of pure chutzpah.

He also built the Hyatt Regency hotel, which changed the skyline of a once-sleepy downtown. He helped obtain lights on the Tower Bridge. He came near to luring the Raiders to Sacramento and began building what he hoped would be a stadium for an NFL or MLB team. He was portion of a generation of developers who opened up Natomas and expanded the footprint of the city of Sacramento dramatically.

Lukenbill was in his thirty when he did most of this. He was a gruff, mustachioed ball of cantankerous fury, a lumbering, guileless blue-collar figure in a town full of passive-aggressive environmentalists – and of backroom money men who eventually wore him down and caused Lukenbill to retreat from public life before selling the Kings in one thousand nine hundred ninety-two.

What people recollect most about Lukenbill is that time in one thousand nine hundred eighty-ninth when he appeared on an Arco Arena catwalk eighty-five feet over the floor because condensation from rainwater was dripping on to the Ct during a contest against the 76ers. He wore a flannel shirt, but number safety harness. The embarrassment of a canceled NBA game was a distinct opportunity until Lukenbill – the owner of the team! – used a banner to fix the leak.

Sacramento was saved from the public relations hit but, in a way, Lukenbill took the hit instead.

People have laughed about the image of him peering down from the catwalk ever since. It wouldn’t be the latest time that Lukenbill would be the punchline of a comic legend for caring more about getting things done than about how he looked doing it.

But if the leaky-roof legend is the only way you recollect Lukenbill, then you're selling him short. In recent decades, there have been few dreamers in Sacramento bigger than him.

Spend some time with the man and you’ll realize he doesn’t have the skill to quickly or concisely articulate the bold visions that drove him to being the biggest newsmaker in town for a period roughly from one thousand nine hundred eighty-two to 1992. To obtain the full Lukenbill story, you’ll have to sit with him – for hours.

Ask him a why a non-sports guy cared so much to bringing the NBA to Sacramento, and within moments your head is spinning as Lukenbill discusses the Lewis and Clark expedition, how Ronald Reagan created the economic conditions to expand Sacramento, how water was the city’s greatest asset until we lost control of it and why Sacramento stopped producing jobs. He’ll indicate you vintage photos of the city when it was first settled. He’ll go on and on and on and you’ll go along with him because you’re still waiting for your answer.

For Lukenbill, bringing the Kings to Sacramento was about fostering a sense of civic unity that'd lift the city out of the shadow of Silicon Valley. “The arena is the community indoor living room,” he said. “My whole philosophy has been about quality of life. Sports. The arts. Universities. They create a enormous disagreement in creating jobs and giving kids a vision of making people care about their community.”

He cares about building Arco and buying the Kings, but he’ll speak more intensely about the lost deals that undercut him and – he believes – Sacramento. “In one thousand nine hundred eighty-two, I'd a deal to bring Intel to Natomas,” he said. Slow-growth policies within the city limits pushed Intel to Folsom instead.

The civic partners who Lukenbill said supported his vision of amenities and jobs to lift Sacramento both died prematurely: Former Sacramento Bee CEO C. K. McClatchy and former Mayor Joe Serna Jr. At the same time, Lukenbill said he fought furiously with business partners Joe Benvenuti and Fred Anderson, both of whom are presently deceased. He was spread so thinly and was so financially leveraged that he didn’t have sufficient time to focus on a Kings franchise that lost distant more games than it won below his watch.

“I was in a partnership that was poison,” he said. “At one point, I was in fifty-fourth business entities in the one thousand nine hundred eighty. I was a wild man.”

Though few know it, Lukenbill built Arco Arena as portion of his hope to become a modern-day Samuel Brannan, who became the first millionaire in CA in the wake of the Gold Rush. Brannan established banks, the first common store in Sacramento, the first newspaper in San Francisco – ventures that made him a towering figure.

Lukenbill also had history-changing vision. He tried to bring neighboring communities together by pushing a one thousand nine hundred ninety initiative that'd have consolidated Sacramento city and county and made it the third-largest city at the time in California. It failed. Then acrimony in his business grouping caused the Raiders-to-Sacramento deal to fail. The money ran out for his stadium venture. McClatchy died. Other business ventures perished. Serna would die by one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine, seven years after Luckenbill parted ways with the NBA franchise he brought to town.

Before he sold the Kings, Lukenbill faced another crisis, similar to the leaky-roof scenario. Arco Arena was set to host an NHL game but the machine that made the ice for the rink was having issues. Instead of hiring someone to deal with it, Lukenbill rounded up a bunch of stethoscopes to discover the cracks in the bowels of Arco that were causing the ice to melt.

“We made the ice, the game went on,” he said. “Then I went to my following board meeting and (the other members) literally laughed at me. I was insulted. I was too near to the fire. These were guys in $1.000 suits and they thought me going out there and fixing the (problem) myself was nuts. It was a (expletive) miracle but did they appreciate me? No.

“It was a tough environment,” he continued. “I was getting screwed over. And I realized I didn’t wish to live my life that way... I felt impotent, love I was a fool for having believed in all the things I did. You can do grand things in a partnership and then murder yourselves for money. I'd thought that I was going to indicate these guys that I can be that positive spirit that can lead and create really grand quality-of-life things happen... But I didn’t have the support of the business community or my partners.”

What might've happened if Lukenbill had built his stadium and brought the Raiders to Sacramento? How different would Sacramento be if city and county had been consolidated? Or if Intel had set up shop in the city limits instead of Folsom?

We’ll never know, but what’s certain is that Lukenbill’s arena stood for more than just a basketball venue. Other plans of his didn’t arrive to fruition, but Lukenbill isn’t bitter. He lives happily, albeit nearly anonymously, working as a business consultant. His E Sacramento residence is beautiful, and he’s surrounded by family.

He may be underappreciated, but Sacramento is a distant better space because of this roll-up-your-sleeves dreamer, even as memories of his accomplishments grow fainter with the closure of the elderly barn that Lukenbill built.

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