If Lisa Marotz has her way, big projects are on the horizon for McCrory Gardens.
Marotz started at McCrory Gardens in May 2016 as interim director, and she became operations director in July 2017, overseeing the McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center, 45-acre state arboretum and 25-acre botanical gardens. She manages strategic business, marketing and staffing functions to ensure McCrory Gardens remains a highly valued asset to South Dakota State University and the city of Brookings.
The SDSU alum has overseen a variety of changes there in the past six years, and her wish list keeps growing, thanks to the generosity of donors.
Changes already on tap include creating a history wall in the education and visitor center. “It features the people who came before us, when nothing was easy,” Marotz said.
Upcoming upgrades this summer are, thanks to a donor, fully funded repairs to the cottage in the gardens, which may be able to host small events in the future, such as private teas, dinners or poetry readings. An update to Mickelson Grove is also planned.
McCrory Gardens recently learned that it was awarded a $600,000 grant to put a permanent, paved 2.5-kilometer path through the arboretum. The path will be fully accessible and be able to accommodate events like cross-country meets. A donor is also interested in putting a fully accessible path through the formal gardens, Marotz said.
“I am just overwhelmed by the generosity and what this path could potentially look like. I know it’s going to be a piece of art. It won’t just be a concrete pad all the way through. There’s going to be design,” she said.
Marotz hopes that someday, McCrory can have its own greenhouse on the garden grounds for savings, convenience and to be able to expand its educational offerings. That would bring true, pivotal change for the betterment of the gardens, she said, including leaner processes for horticulture and grounds growth and management.
SDSU students have always had free admission to the gardens, and as of a year ago, all SDSU employees and up to six guests are offered free admission, too. An admission rate of $1 per adult for households dealing with financial difficulties has also been recently approved.
Whether it’s been a small change or a more significant project, all improvements have the goal of helping the gardens reach their full potential.
And they’re paying off, as McCrory saw its highest ever admissions in 2022, with a final tally topping 56,000. That includes those who came to visit the gardens, those who hosted events there, and those who came for educational events. The next highest annual admission total was in 2019, with about 46,000.
“That’s at least 25,000 more (per year) than when I first came,” Marotz said of last year’s record. “And Garden Glow. Who would have thought that we could reach over 11,000 people in a botanical garden, in South Dakota, in December? That is probably the most joyful thing.”
The education and visitor center didn’t have a cash register when Marotz started, but from her past on-campus experience, she knew to connect with Card Services to find one. Campus Wi-Fi and an ATM were also added. The center has the recent addition of a barista-style espresso machine serving Kool Beans Coffee, and it also sells SDSU ice cream. Merchandise available in the gift shop has expanded, and it includes McCrory-sourced and -produced maple syrup.
“We value bringing in local products, things that are made regionally,” she said. “It’s thinking about what people are asking about, and if we feel that it fits our mission, we pursue it.”
Marotz also values the collaborations she’s developed across campus, one of which resulted in McCrory maple syrup ice cream created by the SDSU Dairy Bar. Glass display cases from the South Dakota Art Museum and a vintage cabinet from the chemistry department, discovered in a campus surplus shed, have also found a new home at McCrory.
The fence surrounding McCrory Gardens went up the year before Marotz started, and she says it was the right move for the university to protect against ongoing vandalism and add a safety measure for families with young children.
“We’re a botanical garden. We’re a living museum for plants, trees and shrubs. Each year the horticulture team begins, at minimum, 50,000 seeds for the inventory of annuals we display,” Marotz said.
“I marvel at the painstaking time it takes to not only plant each tiny seed in its own very small container, but then to water, transplant and nurture them to a size suitable for establishing in the beds of the formal gardens as well as in the large display containers. All of this is done in greenhouse spaces we rent on campus proper. Can you imagine something you create, literally grow from seed, plant it, and the next day it could be gone?
“We want people to enjoy the gardens, without a doubt. But we wouldn’t have Garden Glow or TuliPalooza without protection,” she added.
Despite her initial plans to become a home economics teacher, Marotz has spent most of her career as a hospitality professional. Earlier this year, the South Dakota Department of Tourism named her one of the state’s best.
In January, Marotz was honored as one of four tourism industry members receiving the Ruth Ziolkowski Outstanding Hospitality and Customer Service Award. This award recognizes tourism industry professionals who provide remarkable service to visitors and whose work demonstrates an outstanding spirit of hospitality.
“It’s folks like these who are the foundation and future of tourism in South Dakota,” said Jim Hagen, secretary of the Department of Tourism. “Their passion, drive and leadership are what make South Dakota’s hospitality second to none.”
Marotz, a Dunnell, Minnesota, native, grew up surrounded by church ladies who she loved working alongside serving coffee, bars and sandwiches.
She started working for campus dining as an SDSU sophomore in August 1985, when Wild Pizza was on campus in Grove Hall, when it served as a dining hall, including the bakery where all yeast bread products for campus were made.
Positions in home economics education were hard to find after graduation in 1989, so she stayed with campus dining. She moved to catering in 1991, became the assistant food service/operations director in 2002, and stayed there until she left campus in 2008.
“Catering really fed my soul because I was serving other people. I was listening to what they wanted, and I could bring it to life and maybe add some little unexpected touches along the way,” Marotz said.
From campus, she moved to a new position as youth and family director at Ascension Lutheran Church. She was part of a team that used a grant to address food insecurity. Those efforts eventually became Feeding Brookings in July 2010.
Marotz used her skills in that program by ordering and storing food, organizing a traffic pattern to give food away in the most efficient manner, hosting cooking schools to help recipients learn how to use specific ingredients, and more.
“I met a lot of great people through that. That was probably my first taste of what it could be like to be a fundraiser. It makes it a lot easier to be a fundraiser when you have a mission and it’s not about yourself. It’s a heck of a lot easier to ask someone for support … when it’s for a mission that’s bigger than you and outside of you, but you fully believe in it.”
A natural fundraiser
During a brief stint at Schadé Vineyard and Winery as its tasting room manager, Marotz got a call from Barry Dunn, then the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council Endowed Dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, about the open director position at McCrory Gardens
“McCrory, especially, has given me such a platform to utilize what I’ve learned from where I’ve been, things I’ve experienced,” Marotz said
In 2019, Marotz completed a tough exam to earn her certificate as a fundraising executive. That, along with spending her entire career in Brookings, is another avenue she never thought her career would take.
“I never knew that fundraising would be in my wheelhouse, but I love it, because I get to tell the story of McCrory and people know that I believe in it,” she said.
“I want to honor (McCrory founders’) vision and am always going to look back to where this place came from, who was a part of it, in order to make decisions today for the future. There are roots here. Literally, all sorts.
“Most importantly, I want to make sure the world knows that the small and mighty team I get to work with each day are the means for any success I may lead McCrory to. They are my purpose.”