Stadium Dreams and Sacramento Kings

For the past couple years we have watched our home town struggle to keep the Sacramento Kings basketball team in Sacramento. We have also observed the proposed attempt to build a new $400 million stadium for the team in downtown Sacramento at the old Southern Pacific railroad yards.

We have also followed all the headlines and rumors about how the Kings are “moving to Anaheim.” The NBA and Mayor Kevin Johnson are “trying to keep the Kings in town.” Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg, D-Sacramento, introduces legislation to keep the Kings in his home town. And developers Ron Burkle and Darius Anderson “pledge to buy the team and keep it in Sacramento.”

It all has a similar ring to when one of us, Patrick Melarkey, was on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and the stadium activity began. Back then it was going to be a privately financed baseball stadium put together by a couple of local boys. It was not for a basketball arena.

“It was 1974 when a call came into my office,” Melarkey remembered. “I was president of the Board of Supervisors and two local lads wanted to build a privately-financed baseball stadium. The taxpaying public wouldn’t have to shell out a nickel for it. The two young men, Gregg Lukenbill and Frank McCormack, were both Catholic boys who had met at Sacred Heart Elementary School and they wanted to meet with me because I had been pushing for a new baseball stadium that would cost $1 million. The idea I had for the stadium design was based on the new minor league baseball stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had made a trip out there, visited the stadium and began thinking about a stadium like it in Sacramento. I thought the new state fair ground at Cal Expo might be appropriate.”

It was in the early stages of this plan when Lukenbill and McCormack came in to see Melarkey. Lukenbill was in his early twenties, McCormack a bit older. They were both dressed in leisure suits, then the current fashion trend, and were eager to outline their stadium dream plan.

“We want to build a state-of-the-art baseball stadium for Sacramento and it won’t cost the public a nickel,” said Lukenbill, by far the more vocal of the duo. “It’s gonna be all privately financed and we’re putting together a team to raise the money. We’re wondering if you might be able to help.”

Melarkey told them he’d do what he could for them and asked them where they wanted to build such a stadium. They had a few ideas, but nothing set in stone. Melarkey waited to see how it would play out.

Baseball in Play

Over the next few years, throughout the rest of Melarkey’s second and final term as a supervisor, he met and consulted with Lukenbill and McCormack a number of times. The baseball stadium idea was still in play. But Lukenbill was interested in any professional sports franchise that would put Sacramento on the map. Gregg said Sacramento was “a world-class city” and deserved such an urban amenity as a professional sports franchise. How the one attribute has anything to do with the other was a mystery.

During these years Lukenbill and McCormack began building their executive and financing team to get a professional sports team. First they hired Greg “Dutch” Van Dusen, the former general manager of the Sacramento Solons baseball team. The Solons were a Pacific Coast League franchise which had broken all attendance records in 1976 playing their home games at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium. “Dutch” came on board the Lukenbill-McCormack vessel in 1978. Then Lukenbill secured the backing of the wealthy Benevenuti family, developers Joe and his son, Richard. Another addition was Frank Cook, a local realtor. The Benvenutis had a large parcel of land in the North Natomas area of Sacramento. Perhaps they could build a stadium there.

The problem was that North Natomas was a political hot potato. Although it had been master-planned as one site for Sacramento expansion in the early 1960s, by the 1970s the local environmental movement wanted to see it preserved. The local No Growth movement had a significant ally in Mayor Phil Isenberg, who was opposed to the development. No way would there be a traffic-generating stadium out in North Natomas, Isenberg vowed.

Now it looked as if there was no way it would even be a baseball stadium. There weren’t any major-league baseball franchises available at that time. But a basketball team could be found. It was the old Rochester Royals franchise, a team that began in the 1920s and won the 1951 NBA championship before it moved to Cincinnati in 1957. Then it moved to Kansas City in 1972, where it was renamed the Kings. This team was now in play and Lukenbill wanted to buy it.

Melarkey was retired from the board when Lukenbill bought the Kansas City Kings franchise in 1983. Lukenbill first vowed to keep the Kings in Kansas City, but only the foolhardy believed it. Lukenbill now had a franchise that could justify the need for a new stadium, and North Natomas was the chosen site.

Melarkey remembers going out there once with Lukenbill and the Benvenutis, standing on the I-880 freeway overpass about a half mile away from the present home of the Kings. Richard Benvenuti pointed from south to north, then west to east, and said, “All this land below us will all be developed as business and office parks if we can get the rezoning through the city council to allow it.” Melarkey thought Lukenbill and the Benvenutis had a king-sized battle on their hands if they intended to take on Phil Isenberg. “The best thing you can do if you intend to try this is to hire Maurice Read,” the Sacramento Public relations wizard, Melarkey told them. “Read and Isenberg are good friends and if anybody can move this stadium forward, it’s Maurice Read.”

Baseball and Development

Then Melarkey stopped following the stadium action. Lukenbill did achieve his plan to build a new basketball arena in North Natomas after a development plan was reached between the developers and the local environmental community in 1987.

Over the next years, Gregg Lukenbill and the Sacramento Kings had a chaotic tenure in Sacramento. The team moved to a different stadium in 1986. Lukenbill sold his part of the franchise in 1992. Frank McCormack, his original partner, was never paid by Lukenbill for his 3 percent share of the franchise. Dutch Van Dusen and Maurice Read moved on. The Benvenutis still had their share of the franchise and the value of property they owned in North Natomas shot through the roof.

The Kings may be in danger of leaving Sacramento, but they have left a lasting mark with the fortune they made for some of their benefactors, such has the Benvenutis.

One beneficiary was Leonard Padilla, the celebrated black-hat bounty hunter most recently seen during the Casey Anthony murder trial. Upon advice from the Benvenutis, in 1979 Padilla bought a 60-acre parcel in North Natomas for $240,000. He received an offer of more than $12,000,000 for the land in 2005, according to a Feb. 25, 2005 story by Sacramento News & Review reporter Cosmo Garvin. Using the same formula provided in the article on Padilla, between 1980-2005, the value for the 4,000-acre North Natomas property held by the Benvenutis increased from $3 million to $400 million.

Two years ago there was an article in the Sacramento Bee about a proposed land swap that involved building a new arena for the Kings at Cal Expo. It seemed that the wheel had come around to where it began.

But the differences were huge. This was no privately-financed stadium; this was a $400 million monster that the city of Sacramento was supposed to finance for the owners. This new plan was called the Convergence Plan and it called for a huge land swap. Cal Expo would be “given” to local developers. The second part of this trifecta called for moving the fair to the site of the present Kings Arena. The final piece in the deal would be a new publicly financed basketball arena in downtown Sacramento adjacent to the old Southern Pacific railway station.

The deal seemed screwy. It was actually proposed by NBA Commissioner David Stern and backed by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

The questions that came to mind were these: Why should Cal Expo be opened up to developers such as the Lennar Corporation, which would likely make a fortune, while the state fair left town and took with it the revenue that comes annually to Sacramento? Was the Kings basketball arena site too small to accommodate the state fair? And how about the cost of the new stadium, estimated at $400 million. Would local taxpayers approve such an expenditure given the state of the fragile economy? Not likely, and in fact they voted down a proposed 0.25 percent sales tax in 2006.

The Anaheim Royals?

In the interim, a decade ago the Maloof family acquired the Kings. When the Convergence Plan went kerflooey, the Maloofs began looking for greener pastures. They thought they found them in Anaheim. The Maloofs went to Anaheim to showcase their wares. The City of Anaheim was interested and the talks began. They would rename the Kings the Royals and the franchise would have a new home.

But moving the Kings to Anaheim would cost a lot of money. The Maloof family would have to pay off the $67 million they owe the City of Sacramento, plus a $9 million early repayment fee. And according to Wikipedia, “In June of 2011, the Maloof brothers, Joe and Gavin, Sold majority share of the Palms to a lending company, Leonard Green & Partners LP in Los Angeles and TPG Capital in Texas, allowing them to continue building their stadium.” Professional sports leagues frown on owners being associated even with legalized gambling.

David Taylor, the local developer flavor-of-the-month in Sacramento, was deputized by the Sacramento City Council to study the feasibility of a new arena in the city. Taylor hasn’t yet met with the Maloofs. Taylor also is waiting for market studies the Kings have promised him.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said of all the basketball maneuvering, “As a city, we can only control what we can control. If [the Maloofs] decide they don’t want to be in Sacramento, that is a choice they have to make.”

And on it goes, up to the present, with the future of professional basketball in Sacramento uncertain. Will Kevin Johnson and his new allies, billionaire developers Ron Burkle and Darius Anderson, deliver on their promise to keep the Kings in Sacramento? Or will they buy an existing NBA franchise, such as the financially troubled New Orleans Hornets, and bring it here? Maybe they will, but Burkle and Anderson still want a new publicly financed downtown arena if they do that. And while basketball franchises may be the stalking horse, in Sacramento the name of the game is still the same: the insider developers who benefit from voter-approved public projects, whether their names are Benvenuti, Burkle or Angelo Tsakopolous, the local developer of record for the Southern Pacific site.

It was like déjà vu all the way back to the Gregg Lukenbill-Frank McCormack plan for a privately financed baseball stadium. That was the original Field of Dreams, and the only one that still makes sense for Sacramento.



1 comment

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    HOWARD FIGLER 22 April, 2013, 14:22

    Dear Sacramento Heroes:

    Seldom if ever has a professional sports team had a love affair with its fans like the Kings in Sacramento. Keeping the Kings in Sacramento
    is the smart thing to do, because the Kings are and will be the only
    professional team in the area. The fans have been putting their fannies in the seats for the last 28 years. The fans create sellouts year after year, no matter what the team’s record.

    If the Kings go elsewhere, they I once lined up at 5:00 AM at dear old Arco to buy tickets for a Kings playoff game.They put hospital-type wrist bands on us to select randomly who would win the tickets. I was awarded the chance to buy two tickets. Oh, Halleluja. My lucky day.

    Howard Figler

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