Reel Lives: Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort CEO Laura Penney On Sovereignty, iGaming, And Staying Active

Brett Smiley

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Every gambler has a story to tell. And so does every person who chooses to make a living in this unique industry.

In our “Reel Lives” series, Casino Reports shines a spotlight on people working in the gaming business, from executives, to analysts, to media members and communications pros, and all points in between.

The subject in this interview: Laura Penney, CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in the Northern Idaho panhandle, one of a small number of female casino CEOs and a smaller number of women CEOs at Native American casinos.

Casino Reports (CR): How long into your tenure as CEO, especially after getting passed over four times for the job, did you really feel you had a firm grasp on it and that you felt the role was yours?

Laura Penney (LP): I was pretty confident after receiving my masters in business administration, along with my extensive gaming experience, that I would get the CEO position. Eventually, I did.  After applying for the fourth time, I was finally chosen for the position in October 2019.

CR: The Tribe has pledged 5% of the resort’s net profits for the education fund. How have those funds been deployed? Are the beneficiaries mainly using it for secondary education?

LP: To date, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has given over $35 million toward education.  The Tribe has donated to colleges, elementary schools, high schools, and multiple educational programs.  These donations have been dispersed well beyond the reservation, in both Idaho and Washington.

CR: If you had to choose another industry to work in, in another part of the country, where else could you envision yourself?

LP: I enjoy communications and public relations. It is vital that we, as Tribes, educate and inform others of who we are — that we exist from time immemorial, that we are thriving, and we have a rich culture to share and preserve. And, most importantly, we have sovereign authority to care and provide for our own well-being in the manners we choose.

CR: The tribe invested about $15 million into the Coeur Center, a recreation center in Worley.  What kinds of events take place there and what kind of personality has the facility developed after about 3½ years of operation now?

LP: The Tribe has always held our children in high priority.  The Coeur Center provides a place for many sporting activities, gatherings, cultural activities, and it helps to unify the community. With the Coeur Center, we focus on our Cda Tribal Youth, but it is also available for all to utilize.  

CR: How do you like to spend free time away from work? How many rounds of golf or miles jogged do you get to enjoy on average each week?

LP: I love golf. After I graduated with my MBA, I “gifted” myself with membership on a 9-hole, ladies league on a public course in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. We play every Tuesday, and this has been a great stress reliever, and my time to enjoy. I also try to do pilates at least five days a week. Pilates also serves as a great release of stress, including rejuvenation. I appreciate the breathing exercises and strengthening of my core. There have been many instances in my job where I have told myself, “Just breathe …” I also enjoy spending time with my three grandchildren and husband.

CR: What’s your feeling on online gambling? To what extent, if any, is Coeur d’Alene evaluating or pursuing the ability to offer iGaming or online sports betting?  

LP: In 1995, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe introduced the National Indian Lottery. Almost immediately, states were challenging our jurisdiction and the very legality of the game. The key issue and concern with online gaming and the National Indian Lottery involved jurisdiction. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, states have a voice in what tribes can do, which truly is an infringement of our tribal sovereignty, and the games allowed will vary from state to state. In Idaho, Tribes can only conduct the types of gaming that the state allows, and Tribes must do so only within their reservation boundaries. I do think that online gaming can be effectively and efficiently utilized by Tribes if the player has to redeem credits and promotions at the casino. Unfortunately, a 1994 amendment to the Idaho Constitution prohibits most casino gaming, including sports betting.  To overcome this barrier, we would have to amend both the state constitution and our current gaming compact, bringing the issue to the people through a ballot initiative.  

CR: What’s something unique or special about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe culture that you can share?

LP: The Coeur d’Alene name was given to the Tribe by 18th and early 19th French trappers and traders. It means “heart of the awl.” An awl is a sharp tool used to pierce leather.  Tribal members became known as shrewd traders and business people. The I-90 corridor runs through the Coeur d’Alene territory; for centuries, the Tribe utilized this and many other modern routes for trade and barter.

CR: Who’s another person in the industry who has your utmost admiration?

LP: I admired and respected my mentor, Dave Matheson, who passed away in January 2023. He was an amazing visionary, who led with great compassion and fearlessness. My father, Ernie Stensgar, has been a long-term tribal leader. He too, has provided great leadership with vision and compassion. Together these two leaders have provided a beautiful infrastructure for gaming and economic development for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. I have the utmost admiration and respect for Choctaw gaming leader Janie Dillard. Janie exemplified professionalism, perseverance, and mentorship. Janie continues to excel in her field and contributes greatly to her Tribe.

Reel Fast

What’s the most popular slots game right now on the casino floor?  

We cannot say “slots,” because slots are illegal in Idaho.  The most popular “video gaming” machines on our casino floor are the “Huff and More Puff” machines. People enjoy the bonus play on these machines.

First vehicle you drove?

My Dad’s little blue Chevy LUV truck. 

What’s the hardest table game to learn how to deal?

Unfortunately, table games are illegal in Idaho. We do have electronic table games.

Favorite main course/entree right now at Chinook Restaurant?

Seafood alfredo.

What’s the last book you read?

I do read some industry books, along with some fiction novels, such as You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. I am currently reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. 

Favorite golf course that you’ve played in the last five years?

My favorite golf course, besides Circling Raven, is Wekopa, Scottsdale, Arizona. It is owned and managed by the Fort McDowell Tribe. It is similar in play to Circling Raven but in a desert setting. It is fun, challenging, and has its own beauty.

You can find Laura online on LinkedIn, or you can find her in the real world working, hiking, or golfing.

Previous installments of Reel Lives:

Sporttrade’s Arpita McGrath On AML, Exchange Wagering, And The Luxury Of Power Windows

Las Vegas Advisor’s Anthony Curtis On Counting Cards, Loving His Job, And Finding The Quintessential Vegas Deal

Strive Gaming CMO Jamie Shea On Soaking Up Knowledge, LTVs, And Stray Cats

SBC’s Sue Schneider On The Interactive Gaming Council, Mentoring, And The Mississippi River