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My New Normal: Illinois Medical District CEO Dr. Suzet McKinney

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While the pandemic slowed the workday for many in the commercial real estate industry, it made Dr. Suzet McKinney’s busier than ever. As CEO of the Illinois Medical District, an independent agency empowered to make zoning decisions, hire builders and select tenants within 560 acres on Chicago's Near West Side, she’s making plans to transform it into a life sciences cluster and jobs engine. But as a nationally recognized expert in public health and emergency preparedness, she also took on special assignments from the state of Illinois to help prepare its response to the coronavirus.

Suzet McKinney at 2240 West Ogden Ave. in the IMD, the site of a mural, completed on May 21, that honors healthcare workers.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker in early April appointed McKinney the non-clinical operations lead for the state’s five alternate care facilities, including McCormick Place and several previously shuttered hospitals, which required build-outs in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s winding down, but in May, Pritzker asked her to take on a similar role for other care facilities, including all nursing homes, public shelters and jails.

She also holds faculty appointments at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the UIC School of Public Health, and is frequently called on to host panels or provide other public commentary on how to combat the virus, both in the U.S and around the globe. Before joining the IMD, she was deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, heading the agency’s preparedness and emergency response efforts.  

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

McKinney: Action-packed is an understatement when it comes to describing my daily schedule. My new normal is 12- to 13-hour days because I’m overseeing operations for Illinois’ alternative care facilities and congregate care settings in addition to my full-time job as head of the IMD — and as you know, real estate is an essential business.

Today, I had to prerecord a keynote for Habitat for Humanity Chicago’s annual gala next week, meet with state health and emergency management officials, attend a virtual board meeting with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, moderate a 90-minute discussion for the Economic Club of Chicago on racial equality in business and more. In total, I had eight meetings and couldn’t attend another three because I was double-booked and things ran over. Through it all my phone was ringing off the hook all day, figuratively of course, about contract language and testing schedules for the state. And this was a normal day. I’m looking forward to going back to work and one job.

But even though I have no spare time at all, I take a three-block walk to my local Starbucks every day. It’s the only way I can get out of the house.

Suzet McKinney with U.S, Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan? 

McKinney: That was my business before I came to the IMD, so our plan’s been done for weeks. We’ll follow the science and best-practice strategies and begin to slowly phase our staff back to the office in mid-June. Anyone on our staff with a chronic health condition will continue to work remotely and everyone will be required to take their temperatures daily. Anyone with a temperature or any COVID-like symptoms will have to remain home, work remotely and consult their physicians.

Fortunately, there are only 12 of us and we have a large, spacious office. We’ve already disinfected our office, increased cleaning protocols, ensured a 6-foot buffer zone between all individual workspaces and purchased plastic shields for our front office staff because they encounter everyone coming into [the] office. And everyone on our staff will be provided with PPE and all necessary other supplies, such as masks, hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes for their workspaces.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally? 

McKinney: I’m planning to go back to the office as much as necessary, but will look for opportunities to work remotely whenever possible for the time being. The same will be true for my staff. We are contemplating staggered work schedules.

I may go shopping; I definitely prefer walking into a store over ordering online. I actually went to dinner yesterday with a girlfriend in Oak Park whom I hadn’t seen in three months. We sat outside and were so excited to see each other and be out. But I really miss dressing up, going to meetings, seeing people in person and meeting friends after work or going to the gym. I can’t wait until it’s safe to do all that again.

Suzet McKinney and her daughter, Joia.

Bisnow: How will you manage the home front as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

McKinney: I feel so lucky that I’ve had this time to be with my daughter, Joia. But I haven’t been able to enjoy it because I’m working constantly and so was she — finishing her freshman year online at Villanova. So we’ve been in different parts of the house on Zoom calls. But she still loves me to cook dinner for her, and we take a break and eat together every night.

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

McKinney: Busier than ever! The IMD’s work continues to move forward as we negotiate contracts and close deals for mixed-use, lab space, retail and residential developments, and the job for the state constitutes a second full-time job, so work is never-ending.

But I’m most excited about our [qualified opportunity zone]. It’s doing really well in terms of attracting development, but more significantly, we just completed an investment prospectus that takes a deep dive on the economic impact of development in QOZs. Our research shows that a life sciences district can be a transformative addition to vulnerable communities in QOZs, and will have a greater economic impact in these communities than in areas with substantial economic resources — and that’s major. 

These findings will be helpful to many other municipalities, so we’re about to start planning a major virtual presentation of the data for local government officials, key stakeholders and our core partners — Accelerator for America, West Side United and Bruce Katz, former Brookings Institution scholar and founding director of the Global Institute on Innovation Districts. 

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

McKinney: Prior to COVID-19, I didn’t think working from home was effective for me. But since the shelter-in-place orders took effect and I’ve had to work from home, I’m 10 times busier than ever. I find it ironic that all the action takes place on my couch, which used to be my favorite spot to relax. I’m really rigorous about sticking to a schedule and start every day at 7:45 a.m. — but then I don’t leave my couch until after 10 p.m. almost every night. It never stops, and because we’ve gotten used to working around the clock form home we really do need to get back to the office and impose a healthy separation of work and play.

Col. Aaron Reisinger, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Suzet McKinney

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

McKinney: We’re a small but close staff, and we all talk to each other multiple times a day. But we’ve had periodic all-staff check-ins over Zoom to give us an opportunity to check in and catch up with each other.

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

McKinney: For starters, it’s forced real estate to catch up in terms of technology, from the way we conduct meetings to the way we market properties to the way we negotiate contracts and do build-outs. Tech is key to all and while it enables us to respect public health strategies for now, I believe it won’t go back. It not only keeps us safe, it saves us time. But specifically, and to state the obvious, certain property types will do much better than others. Fortunately for the IMD, healthcare and multifamily will continue to thrive.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

McKinney: COVID-19 and the George Floyd case have thrust healthcare disparities and racial inequality into the spotlight. I have been encouraged by the mobilization that I’ve seen among the business and philanthropic communities to provide food, resources and assistance to those in need, especially the most vulnerable. COVID-19 highlighted the disproportionate impacts of the disease on African Americans. I’m hopeful that our society will begin to pay attention to inequalities in housing, income, healthcare and economics, all long-standing systemic issues that continue to exacerbate these problems.