01/02/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Drive Table Tennis Social Club In Detroit, Founded By Diallo Smith, Opens Downtown

Get out of the basement, ping-pong players. A new club dedicated to the sport is open for business in downtown Detroit.

Drive Table Tennis Social Club opened its doors for a trial run in mid-December on Woodward Avenue between Clifford Street and Grand River Avenue. Their grand opening is Friday, Jan. 18.

The club, which holds six tables for players to rent by the hour, is currently open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday,. They plan to extend their hours after obtaining their liquor license, along with adding more staff -- owner Diallo Smith and his wife, Jameel Smith, are currently holding down the fort themselves.

The Detroit natives, who live on the east side with their two young children, moved back to the city in 2008 after more than a decade away.

"We started a family down there [in Texas], but Detroit was always in our hearts," said Diallo Smith. "We wanted to start a business that in our minds would be exactly what Detroit needed … something that's innovative, could build community."

Smith came up with the idea for a table tennis club after hearing about a similar business in New York. He tested the plan in the city last year by hosting several pop-ups at events around the city. Part of the appeal, Smith said, is how many people have played the game at some point in their lives.

"We wanted to do something … that in some way created a melting of all different ages, ethnicities ... that could come together at one time," he said.

Smith considers himself a novice player, though he's trying to brush up on his skills. Others looking to do the same can play for fun or enter the competitions held at Drive, like the Masters of the Basement tournament, planned to take place every Monday evening and geared towards beginners and intermediate players.

The sport also has a low barrier to entry, Smith said, so it is enjoyable to people of any skill level.

Part of Drive's model lets people "play it forward." Each ping-pong table is linked to a nonprofit, both local and national, including the Detroit Zoo, Gleaners Community Food Bank, Forgotten Harvest and Developing K.I.D.S. A small amount of players' rental fees, between one and two percent of the gross income, will be donated to their table's charity.

So far, the zoo has been the most popular. In the first two weeks, Smith estimates over 400 people had played at their tables.

"From the beginning we said we don't just want to be a business in the city," Smith said. "We want to be a business for the city as well."

His aspirations to become a business owner go back a long ways. He remembers walking to the bus stop growing up along the same block of Woodward where Drive is located.

"I can still visualize the businesses that used to be on that block … there used to be a record store, a shoe store, a Woolworth's … I can remember those businesses and patronized those businesses," Smith said. As a child, he remembered thinking, "How cool it would be to own a business downtown."

"My friends would always call me the businessman. I had pictures of Bill Gates all around my dorm room, because that's what I always saw myself doing. Life took me in a lot of different directions, but I kind of came full-circle," he said.

One of those other directions was toward faith. Smith is also the leader of the nondenominational Christian church Awakenings Movement, which he founded in 2008. It is a separate entity from Drive but uses its space on Sundays.

Smith said the space in Merchant's Row is rented from Bedrock Real Estate Services, one of Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert's companies, on a short-term lease. He said the lease has an option to be extended, which they plan to do.

Though the club had some initial investors, the Smiths are also raising funds for Drive through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The campaign to raise $5,500 kicked off in early December and continues through Thursday. They would use the funding to help with the city licensing process and to build out projects inside the space, including a stage for performances. Backers had donated over $3,000 as of Wednesday.



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