RIALTO - One of the most important meetings in city history actually took place outside the city - at the Coco's in Diamond Bar in fall 2004.

About a half dozen people met for a power breakfast that morning. The topic of conversation: getting Rep. Gary Miller's help to close Rialto's airport so it could be replaced with the indiscreetly named Renaissance Rialto, a master-planned community.

Set up by the project's developer, the Lewis Group of Companies, breakfast-goers included Miller, David Lewis, some advisers and Robb Steel, Rialto's economic development director.

"It was such a pipe dream," Steel said of closing the airport, which, with Miller's help, Congress approved in 2005. The breakfast was a success.

After chowing down on the weekday special of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and coffee, Steel, now 50, picked up the check, calling it a "small price" to pay.

It's been a week since the opening of the 210 Freeway ex- tension between Rialto and San Bernardino. The completion of the freeway makes the coming months and years critical for Rialto, and Steel is the man in the center of it all.

"I feel really, really blessed to have him," said City Administrator Henry Garcia.

Garcia said he "begged" Steel to come to Rialto after the two worked in the same capacities in Colton.

An old baseball player with a dry wit and dark hair sprinkled with gray, Steel looks like a guy a developer can do business with. And he talks like someone you want managing projects. He has a tendency to answer questions by referencing complex economic models, footnotes in financial studies and in a bureaucrat-speak it takes a master's degree in public administration to have a chance at decoding.

Steel couldn't be at the city at a better time, said former Councilman Joe Sampson.

"From an economic development and redevelopment point of view, Robb has been one of the best things that has happened for the city," he said.

Earlier this year, Steel saved the city millions of dollars by negotiating an increase in the minimum amount of money the city would make off selling the airport to develop it.

When it became clear the city might get only $6 million because of a disagreement with other parties in the deal, Steel helped negotiate increasing the minimum the city would make to $26 million.

"I respect Robb Steel more than any redevelopment director we've ever had," said resident Greta Hodges, who doesn't shy away from criticizing city officials and decisions she doesn't like. She said she's a fan of Steel because he's honest - he answers even tough questions truthfully, she said - and because he's realistic about what should be built in Rialto.

Steel, who lives in San Clemente, said he's willing to make the drive because working as a redevelopment director in the Inland Empire is exciting. He likes the intellectual challenge of dealing with a region that is growing faster than its infrastructure can be built.

A project like Renaissance Rialto, with a price tag between $1 billion and $2 billion, is almost unheard of in a city the size of Rialto, he said.

"I'd like this to be the last city that I work for."

Steel's office is packed with binders about the projects moving forward in Rialto. He also has a Maxwell Smart bobblehead - "I'm bumbling like he was," he said - and an autographed photo of Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 in "Get Smart."

Steel thought the autograph was real, but learned it was a joke perpetrated by some of the staff in the office.

There's an air of levity in the Redevelopment Agency office downtown, which is down from City Hall a few blocks.

Steel's No. 2, Economic Development Manager Greg Lantz, said Steel makes the staff work long hours.

"He's a taskmaster," Lantz said of the boss, "but at least he's good to work for."

Contact writer Jason Pesick at (909) 386-3861 or via e-mail at jason.pesick@sbsun.com.