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 mid-1980s.
“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 started.
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 city.
“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.
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 hands.
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