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At C&I Studios in FAT Village, Joshua Miller never tires of reaching out

Since moving to South Florida from Washington, D.C., in 2008, Joshua Miller has been a relentless nurturer of community. Now the CEO of C&I Studios — the youthfully spirited marketing firm that helped establish downtown Fort Lauderdale’s FAT Village as a creative and commercial destination — has formalized its charitable efforts into a nonprofit called C&I Reach.

The title is an apt representation of C&I Studios’ long-running effort to connect communities, both local and global, and his firm’s use of cutting-edge, visual forms of communication to propel its message. But it also fits the lofty ambitions of a man undeterred by the recognition that, perhaps, his reach always may exceed his grasp.

“How do you actually change the world? That’s what we sit around the table and talk about,” Miller says.

On Saturday, Oct. 13, C&I Studios will host its first public fundraiser for C&I Reach called “Beyond,” planned as an annual event dedicated to its work with aid organizations from Guatemala to Zambia. The company, based in Fort Lauderdale, with offices in Los Angeles and North Carolina, has worked on campaigns for Coca-Cola, Nike and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Not your typical charity event, a highlight of “Beyond” will be video — shot with high-definition 8K 360-degree cameras — depicting everyday life in homes and schools in small villages. Wearing virtual-reality Oculus Go headsets, fundraiser guests will be immersed in the day-to-day existence of residents.

Along with Miller, the team behind C&I Reach and “Beyond” includes C&I Studios’ Justin Mein, Ian Dawson and Beth Bryant.

The goal for the trips to underprivileged countries was to use their particular fluency in visual storytelling — the lingua franca of the modern generation — to illuminate untold stories that might change hearts and minds in America.

What may be surprising about the fundraiser VR experience, Miller warns, is not the despair found in these villages, but the joy.

“These kids are flying a kite made out of a plastic bag, and they’re having the time of their life. These countries are beautiful. These people are beautiful,” Miller says. “This [fundraiser] is us gathering a group of people and saying, ‘Hey, let’s be better versions of ourselves. Take a look around through this Oculus Go and let’s help some of these communities.’”

‘We took a chance’

If FAT Village seems like the perfect petri dish for young South Florida creatives to experiment, it was not always so. And Miller is concerned that its days as an art community may be numbered as rents rise and development looms.

When Miller moved C&I Studios from a space on Commercial Boulevard to FAT Village about eight years ago, there wasn’t much else around. The landlord virtually begged him to lease the building that backed onto the FEC railroad tracks at 541 NW First Ave., the street that forms the spine of FAT Village.

“We took a chance, right? Our cars were getting broken into. And all of our clients were, like, ’I’m not driving down that road,’” Miller says.

Instead of locking his doors, Miller opened them. Soon after C&I Studios arrived in FAT Village he began rolling up the big delivery-bay doors at the warehouse for free neighborhood barbecues.

Then came live music and movie nights, the For the Love Music Festival and warehouse programming — local bands, fashion shows and silent-disco parties — for the blossoming FAT Village Art Walk. A few years ago C&I Studios carved out space for a coffee shop and then a bar, Next Door @ C&I, an instantly popular hangout for the young and creatively restless.

Today, Miller watches Maseratis roll by; Art Walk draws thousands of visitors; two 100-foot construction cranes loom over a large residential project a block away; Henry’s Sandwich Station next door serves truffled grilled cheese; and the 40,000-square-foot Sistrunk Market & Brewery is going in across the tracks.

‘Dope warehouses’

When Yo-Yo Ma sat down last April and had his hair cut at Nobleman’s Cut & Shave just up the block, Miller’s excitement came with frustration.

The visit by the renowned cellist was part of a multicity tour called Arts Across America that introduced Ma to places where creativity is being cultivated around Fort Lauderdale, including FAT Village, ArtServe, Walker Elementary School and Dillard High School.

The funky otherness that encouraged Ma to pause in FAT Village, chockablock with warehouses, galleries and art-making spaces, is a distinctive side of Fort Lauderdale that is under-appreciated by local leaders who accompanied Ma, Miller says.

“You’ve got a celebrity coming here and what are you going to show him? You don’t want to show him Las Olas and the Icon building. You want to show him the dope warehouses, with the artists that are doing really unique things,” Miller says. “It’s exciting. But I also feel challenged … watching our friends trying to figure out where they’re going to move their businesses.”

Miller says the rent at C&I Studios has been rising, but the increase is offset by profits from Next Door @ C&I and the coffee shop. He worries about neighbors without such extra revenue streams.

“We’re super pro development, but you have to be careful,” Miller says.

‘It’s the formula’

At the nearby IS Projects printmaking studio, owner Ingrid Schindall, a Delray Beach native, has been creating fine-art prints and hosting weekly workshops since 2014.

If Art Walk has become more drinking party than creative exchange, Schindall says FAT Village events such as the Small Press Fair — a collection of vendors and workshops returning on Nov. 10 — have helped encourage serious interest in her work.

“FAT Village has been a really good place for us. Business has been great. There’s a good community here,” Schindall says.

She describes her landlord, FAT Village developer Doug McCraw, as an asset

“Of course, everyone wants lower rents, but ... Doug and [partner] Lutz [Hofbauer] are really trying to do good by their artists,” she says.

Schindall isn’t sure how much longer she will be in her current space, but sees a move as an inevitable part of a natural progression. Art communities tend to mirror urban development rather than inspire it, she says.

“It’s the formula. The city had a plan to bring 100,000 people downtown. This is the place that had the most blank spaces to work with,” Schindall says. “There was the recession. There was a bunch of vacant spaces. So ‘Let’s just toss artists in there, because they don’t need us to fix it up.’ Places sit dormant with artists in them until that land is valuable.”

Around the corner at Nobleman’s Cut & Shave, co-owner Kevin Grande took time from another busy afternoon to speak about the barbershop, called Monarchs when he helped open it in 2016.

The Fort Lauderdale native spent six years working nearby at Joe’s Barber Shop on Federal Highway. The decision to locate his own shop on a back street in FAT Village prompted some sleepless nights, he says.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, business wise, but I’m grateful that I did it,” says Grande, whose staff specializes in the styles you might see on David Beckham and Paul Pogba. “Why not the art district? What we do is art.”

Citing the opening of Henry’s, a sushi spot coming in a couple doors down, the Sistrunk brewery, new highrise projects and the recent opening of the nearby Brightline station, Grande is happy he took the risk in FAT Village.

“Things keep growing and growing. It’s this big now, and imagine two years from now,” he says.

C&I Studios, 541 NW First Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, will host “Beyond,” a photography and virtual-reality showcase and fundraiser, 7-11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13. Tickets cost $75, including food and open bar. Visit CIReach.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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