More than 4,300 donors have given more than $223,000 — with individual donations from $5 to $5,000 — to the GoFundMe campaign launched by Chris and Telisha Cobb to beef up the offer they hope to make to AJ Capital Partners. Their aim is to buy the property home to the historic venue Exit/In, where Chris Cobb has been booking shows since 2004. He became a part owner of the business a few years later with fellow Marathon Music Works co-founder Josh Billue. In 2019, the Cobbs and Billue amicably dissolved their partnership, leaving the Cobbs owners of Exit/In.
On April 2, the word went out that the property was newly under contract to AJ Capital. Following a press-conference-turned-block-party outside the club on April 7 and the GoFundMe reaching its $200,000 goal on April 8, AJ Capital finally broke its week of radio silence a little after 6 p.m. on Friday, April 9. A note attributed to the firm’s founder Ben Weprin says the company does not (and never did) plan to build a hotel on the property, and will be taking up the task of putting the venue on the National Register of Historic Places. “Our goal and company mission statement is to conserve and preserve while maintaining the health and vibrancy of the communities we invest in,” reads the statement. “The EXIT/IN is no exception. In fact, the artist community was first to put the need for iconic venue preservation and assistance on our radar.” The company made an offer to pay back anyone who donated to the GoFundMe.
Telisha and Chris Cobb, however, have not backed down from their bid. “We invite Ben to accept our offer so Exit/In can continue to nurture Nashville’s creative working class and not become another playground for the elite,” the Cobbs' note reads. “The offer to reimburse donors to our campaign is interesting, but we know Nashville's music community can't be bought. We're also glad Ben wants to see live music on Exit/In's stage. We're not aware that he has seen a show here, but welcome him in to experience the magic of the place. We're more committed than ever to protecting Nashville's creative working class — it's who we are!”
Metro Councilmember Jeff Syracuse, who represents the Opry Mills-area District 15, was one of several councilmembers who attended the April 7 press conference and spoke up on behalf of the Cobbs and the venue. “Any change to the character both interior and exterior damages a critical part of Nashville’s ecosystem that is unlike any other,” wrote Syracuse in an email to the Scene after the news of AJ Capital’s release and the Cobbs’ response. Several other Metro Councilmembers have also voiced their support for the Cobbs’ ongoing bid to buy the property.
Councilmember Brandon Taylor represents District 21, which is home to parts of historically Black North Nashville as well as the Rock Block, the strip of Elliston Place home to Exit/In and The End. Taylor says he would welcome any conversation with property owners about the potential for adding a historic overlay to the property, which is one of the better tools we have (if not a perfect one) for preventing alterations to a parcel of land. But he agrees that there’s more to maintaining history than just keeping the building intact.
“When we talk about preserving Exit/In, are we talking about preserving what that space truly means?” asks Taylor, speaking to the Scene via phone. “This is a great opportunity for an investor coming into Nashville to show the city that they care about the city that they want to invest in — the people, the music, everything that we have to offer.”
Councilmember Brett Withers, who represents District 6 in East Nashville, is vice-chair of the Metro Council's Planning, Zoning and Historical Committee. Echoing comments from Syracuse and Taylor, he notes in an email that there are relatively few protections against the demolition of a historic building.
“It is great that the prospective owners might be interested in working with Councilmember Brandon Taylor to apply such local historic zoning to this parcel,” says Withers. “But the larger issue is that what makes Exit/In continue to be special is the business itself. Therefore, the best way to save this local business is to sell the building to the business owners who have demonstrated an ability to raise the funds through community support. Short of selling the property to the Exit/In owners, a long-term lease might be acceptable.”
Councilmember Joy Styles, who represents parts of Antioch in District 32, preceded Withers as the Planning, Zoning and Historical Committee vice-chair. She’s also a musician herself. “I got out of the performance business as full-time work a few years ago, but your heart never changes,” says Styles. “Once an artist, always an artist, it doesn't matter what you do.”
She also points to the lack of communication between AJ Capital and the Cobb family as a troubling sign.
“One would think that if you were going to maintain this revered institution, and you've seen the support, that you would reach out to the very people that are running it and have made it very clear that they want to own it,” she says. “So if your desire is to let it remain, why don't you just sell it? Let it live with the people that are already emotionally vested in the community and in Nashville's musical history.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Councilmember Withers serves and Councilmember Styles had served on the Metro Historical Commission.