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What started out as a relatively humble effort to provide assistance to high school athletic coaches has turned into a multimillion-dollar economic boon to the community and a boost to the physical education department and its students at Southern Utah University.

"When I was a high school coach, we had limited opportunities for scheduling or for new places to play and new experiences. I was determined that if I ever had an opportunity to help the high schools, I would do just that," said Steve Lunt, head of the SUU department of physical education.That was one of two initial incentives for Lunt to spearhead a campaign of hosting high school athletic events on the SUU campus. The second incentive was a little more self-serving for the university.

"Times in this area were a little tough when I assumed the duties of the athletic director and became heavily involved in fund raising," Lunt ex-plained.

"I noticed that when local businesses had good years - when they prospered - our contributions were much higher. I concluded that anything that could be done to improve business would also improve financial resources for the university."

Lunt came up with an approach that helped high schools offer a broader range of opportunities to their athletes and also helped the economy of the Cedar City area. By utilizing university facilities and resources, he created as many opportunities as possible to host high school athletic events.

It didn't happen suddenly, but it has grown to significant proportions. Last year, the university had students from 71 percent of the high schools in Utah on campus for some athletic event. Estimates of the value to the Cedar City economy have been estimated at between $2.5 million and $4 million annually.

Not surprisingly, Lunt was the 1994 recipient of a special recognition award for economic development by the Cedar City Area Chamber of Commerce.

With the completion of SUU's Centrum arena in 1985, the effort received a significant boost. This year, 19 events for high schools will be held in Cedar City, and Lunt will be the chief university contact for each. Events range from a variety of multiteam invitationals in volleyball, basketball, and softball to state championship competition in 3A volleyball and football, 1A wrestling and 2A basketball.

During one four-weekend period in November and December, SUU hosted 54 boys or girls basketball teams.

"We got a little unexpected spinoff during that period," Lunt grins. "The university had athletic events scheduled at that time, and many of the high school athletes and coaches and fans wanted to see some SUU games."