The New Adventures of Gregg Lukenbill: Catching Up With the Man of a Thousand Projects

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When Gregg Lukenbill holds up his hands for his guest to examine
and says, “These are my pride and joy,” he’s not being
figurative. A gifted contractor, he does most of his own
building, remodeling and, as he likes to say — quoting his late
and revered father Frank, who gave him his first paycheck as a
construction-crew member when Lukenbill was seven — “makin’
somethin’ out of nothin’.’’

 “My dad taught me that when you get an idea to create
something, you sit down, sketch out your vision, figure out the
materials you’re going to need, then build it,” he says. “I’ve
been doing that my whole life, brother.”

 Lukenbill was an object of awe, envy, irritation and
adoration as he dominated municipal and regional business news
starting in the 1970s, and then when he became one of the new
owners of the Sacramento Kings and developer of ARCO Arena in the

 “I had never been to an NBA game in my life,” he admits
with a large laugh. “I just wanted to get the contract to build
the (expletive) arena!”

 He was one of the entrepreneurs who helped get the Hyatt
Regency to establish a downtown presence across from the state
Capitol; owned an aviation company, Sky King, which launched
hundreds of commercial flights in Boeing 747s and 767s before
crashing into bankruptcy; and he remains a highly respected
historian and philanthropist who can accurately rattle off dates,
data and donations with equal dispatch.

 Lukenbill’s newest adventure is reviving The Trap, a local
legendary bar, working beside two of his six children (from two
marriages). In fact, the day of this interview, which begins in
late morning, he has been up since 4 a.m., hauling bags of cement
to install pillars and posts at the bar. He says he’ll be heading
back there after the interview to complete one of the jobs he’s

 At 68, the native Sacramentan calls himself a “whirling
dervish” and also proclaims in a cheerfully booming voice,
“Everyone thinks I’m an (expletive) but I really don’t give a
(expletive), maybe I am.”

 Blessed with self confidence, total recall of hundreds of
anecdotes and an intense curiosity about almost everything,
Lukenbill has a lifelong, nearly unconditional love for the city
he helped build. Though sometimes controversial earlier in his
career, he’s now admired by many of the people who make up that

 “I would say Gregg’s a rough-and-tumble Renaissance man,”
says his neighbor of 20-plus years, Jan Stefanki, a longtime
teacher at St. Francis Elementary School. She’s often had
Lukenbill speak to her eighth grade classes and lead them on
downtown field trips that feature some of his projects. “It may
sound trite, but Gregg’s message was always to encourage the kids
to think big and do big,” Stefanki adds. “He’s fascinated with
history and shares that.” 

 With his passion for the past and present, Lukenbill says
he’s often asked why he didn’t become a history professor. He
shrugs and says, “Just didn’t have the time.”  

 For a leisurely lunch in the four-story, 1912 East
Sacramento home Gregg and his wife Sally have owned (and he
hasn’t stopped working on) for 25 years, Lukenbill has brought in
Chinese food from a restaurant down the block. He’s big on
shopping local but also has a collection of chess boards and
pieces, as well as lapel pins, from their world travels together.
Much of the chat takes place on his front porch, which he uses as
an al fresco office, chatting up a mail carrier and making a
couple of calls when the urge strikes him. 

Grading Gregg Lukenbill

“When the Golden 1 Center opened in September 2016 as the city’s major event center and home of the Sacramento Kings, there was one person of whom it might be fairly said he made it happen (by bringing the Kings to Sacramento many years earlier,)” says Joseph E. Coomes, a former Sacramento city attorney, former senior partner of the now-closed law firm McDonough Holland & Allen, an advisory attorney to the Best Best & Krieger law firm and generally regarded as the father of California redevelopment.

“Gregg’s vision was driven by the belief that Sacramento, as the capital of California, could bring about that status if it focused on it,” says Coomes. “In addition to an event arena for the Kings, he started construction on a stadium suitable for a major league baseball team or national football league team. He came very close in 1989 to bringing the Oakland Raiders to Sacramento as their home by convincing a unanimous Sacramento City Council to issue $50 million in municipal bonds to relocate the team.” But the Raider transaction failed because the local group formed by Lukenbill couldn’t agree, and construction of the stadium ceased after spending $16 million on foundations.

“My dad respects hard work,” says his 23-year-old daughter and entrepreneur-in-the-works, Mariah, “because that’s what he learned from his dad.”

“Gregg says he’s most proud of his hands,” says his neighbor and friend of more than two decades, Jan Stefanki. “But what he really has is a very big heart. He loves the city, his family, his friends; and even though he’s a historian, he lives very much in the present.”

–Ed Goldman

 If you don’t get a kick out of his energy — he’s survived
three heart attacks, the first of which happened when he was only
45, the most recent last December — you might even call him a bit
rude. But if you enjoy being part of his nonstop orbit, narrated
with colorful language, amusing hyperbole and some off-the-record
gossip, you can see Lukenbill as infectious and boyish. “I love
life and living,” he says. He then turns the phrase: “I like
loving and living.”

 As a teen, Lukenbill became part of his dad’s contracting
business, Lukenbill Brothers, owned by his father and his uncle.
He obtained his state contractor’s license at the age of 18,
bought out his uncle Berkley Lukenbill’s share of the business
for $12,000, and the company became Lukenbill & Son. 

 At various points in his career, Lukenbill has owned dozens
of companies, ranging in size from miniscule (just him) to
sizable, including Lukenbill Enterprises and Sky King. The latter
was named for both the popular TV series of the 1950s and in
homage to the Sacramento Kings.  

These days, he and Sally, who he met at UC Davis in 1995 when
both were working on their MBAs, own the self-initialed company
G&SL. Sally runs the state’s Capital Outlay division of the
Department of Finance. “She’s in charge of nine of what the
Sacramento Business Journal identified as the state’s top 12
construction projects,” he says with undeniable pride. “I mean,
she’s a powerhouse.”

 The project that Lukenbill may be keenest on — “This is
more important than bringing the Kings to Sacramento, by far,” he
says — is a sculpture by nationally known artist Lisa Reinertson
of the late Joan Didion, a treasured product of Sacramento whose
novels, nonfiction and essays provided a literary framework for
American angst and aspirations from the 1960s until her death a
year ago. 

 The statue, depicting Didion as a young writer, was
commissioned by the Sacramento Historical Society, of which
Lukenbill is vice president. He spearheaded contributions and
fundraising  with the help of other local supporters. It’s
being dedicated this month and will be installed in the
Sacramento Room of Sacramento’s Central Library. 

 Meanwhile, the Lukenbills’ daughter, Mariah, brought her
dad his newest adventure: the purchase and renovation of The Trap
on Riverside Boulevard in Sacramento’s Pocket area. While final
ownership will happen this coming June, Mariah and half-brother
Ben, Gregg’s son from a previous marriage, are already running
the place.

 A recent visit to The Trap reveals it to be just like its
Facebook page proudly proclaims it: “Sacramento’s oldest, oddest
dive bar where everyone knows your name.” The neighborhood
watering hole has been there in one form or another, Gregg
Lukenbill says, “since the late 1860s.” Mariah Lukenbill — who’s
23 and a business graduate of Cal State Monterey — says she and
her dad had scoped out a number of possible locales for her to
create one of her own dream projects, “a coffee shop near a
university which would be quiet and open late.” Instead, the two
settled on this starter enterprise “to give me a taste of the
business.” She already managed another business and worked for
years at the fondly recalled (and for many, sorely missed) East
Sacramento ice cream emporium, Burr’s.

 A small commotion outside the bar interrupts this chat and
one of the customers announces, “Gregg’s here.” Despite what he
claims his detractors say about him, Lukenbill has been a local
celebrity for years. As a young man he was known for appearing at
(and displaying impatience with) Sacramento City Council
meetings, dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots when
his business partners, appearing with him, were strictly Brooks
Brothers. He became somewhat legendary when, on a stormy night
during a Sacramento Kings game in the 1980s, this team executive
personally climbed up a very tall ladder to fix a leak in the
roof of ARCO Arena. 

 Sure enough, on the day of this visit to The Trap, there’s
Lukenbill outside, bent over and wearing knee pads as he smooths
some of the cement — one of the bags he’d lugged the morning of
an interview a few days earlier — to hold a post in place. People
attempt conversation with him, and while he tries to be gracious,
he’s laser-focused on the job before him, one that requires
precision and his stated pride and joy: his steady, skillful

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