SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Some big changes are happening at the Mary Jo Wegner Arboretum on the east side of Sioux Falls. The board of directors is hoping more people will take advantage of the 155 acres of trees, gardens and trails.

It’s a place where all are welcome, a place to learn, exercise the body and experience a connection to nature.

Located along Highway 42 across from Arrowhead Park, in some ways the Mary Joe Wegner Arboretum may very well be a hidden gem.

“The main focus of the Arboretum, as far as our mission is to nurture a connection between plants and people,” Mike Cooper, executive director of the Mary Jo Wegner Arboretum, said. 

However, it is quickly becoming a venue for activities like retreats, summer day camps, hiking and weddings.

The person behind the recent improvements is the Executive Director, Mike Cooper who recently took over the position while serving on the board of directors.

“As the city grows to the east, people are becoming more and more aware of what we are and where we are located,” said Cooper. 

As a Parks Director and a City Planner, Cooper spent 30 years helping Sioux Falls grow. Now he’s using that same vision to grow the arboretum.

“You know, Mike has that long experience, particularly with city government,” Mary Jo Wegner Arboretum board member Michelle Erpenback said.

Michelle Erpenbach was part of the original group that started the arboretum project back in 2005.

“He can bridge those gaps between a private entity like the arboretum board and the public because it is a public park. And so how do we cross those bridges and work together? That’s Mike’s gift,” said Erpenbach.

History is also a part of the many learning opportunities at the arboretum.

The East Sioux Falls Historic sight is located here, founded in 1887. The community was developed around a booming quartzite mining business.

The community of 577 even had its own school which has been replicated in the Jasper Center.

“Kids can come in here and talk and learn about what the old school district used to be like,” Cooper said. 

Kids might get to try things they’ve never even seen in their school. For instance, a chalkboard.

Cooper and the staff are growing the nonprofit by renting out space.

The downstairs of the Jasper center was updated in May of last year.

“We can host about a hundred people in this area for different events whether it’s for a wedding party, graduation, open house, birthday party, whatever it might be. And we also have a demonstration kitchen with all the appliances we can utilize for different events,” said Cooper.

They plan on more cooking classes and garden-to-table demonstrations.

They also plan to add a wedding pergola and make improvements to the patio area for outdoor events.

“From last May to the end of last year we hosted over 50 events,” said Cooper. 

The Arboretum is already getting bookings for this year.

Cooper says they’ve hired an event coordinator and are trying to be competitive when it comes to pricing.

He wants people to know the venue is available during the week for corporate retreats or meetings.

“We have a lot of things in the hopper we want to get done this year, so it’s going to be a busy year in terms of development projects,” Cooper said.

Erpenbach says a project of this size has to begin with small steps but thanks to Cooper, they are past that.

“There comes a point where you stop just crawling along and you really start to run. And that’s what we’ve got now because Cooper is kind of the coach and he’s making this team run. And it’s just exciting to see all these big changes in terms of, let’s get a vision let’s follow the vision and let’s go. That’s cool,” said Erpenbach.

A link to Mary Jo Wegner Arbouretum’s website can be found here.