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Downtown Tampa tries free pingpong in the park

Jonathan Torres plays pingpong with Urban Conga founder Ryan Swanson on Friday on the new permanent public pingpong table at Lykes Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa. Torres helped fabricate the steel table after Urban Conga — a group of design guys who promote play — got a grant from Awesome Tampa Bay to help build the table.
Published Jul. 26, 2014

TAMPA — To enliven downtown, Tampa has tried:

• Coloring the Hillsborough River kelly green for St. Patrick's Day.

• Creating a mac-and-cheese festival.

• Putting a pop-up golf driving range on N Franklin Street.

• Trucking in loads of white sand for a summer beach volleyball court.

Now comes a hot pink pingpong table where you can play table tennis for free in Lykes Gaslight Square Park.

For its first game Friday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn faced Ryan Swanson of Urban Conga, the local nonprofit behind it.

"It's one more reason for people to come down here," Buckhorn said afterward. "More things like this, more public art, more amenities are exactly what our downtown needs, and we're getting there."

Swanson, 26, started Urban Conga with two fellow University of South Florida master's in architecture graduates, Brennen Huller and Mark Perrett. Their goal is to promote creativity and play by installing things people can play with in underused spaces.

"The table is kind of indestructible," said Swanson, who got the idea a few years ago while backpacking through Europe, where urban pingpong tables made of concrete are common.

Urban Conga's table is made of 11-gauge steel with a solid trapezoid skirt and a weight of more than 500 pounds, making it hard to crawl under or move. The paint is coated so graffiti wipes off. A profile of the city's skyline is cut into the table's side and steel net.

Using it is free, though players have to deposit $10 or hand over their license to borrow a ball and paddles for an hour. (You also can bring your own.) For now, those are available at Urban Juice at 510 N Franklin St. Once Holy Hog Barbecue opens in August, it will handle the distribution of paddles and balls.

Awesome Tampa Bay, a local foundation that gives grants to support ideas to improve the city, contributed $1,000 toward the table's $5,000 cost. The rest came from Urban Conga's founders, who dug into their own pockets and negotiated discounts for goods or services. The Tampa Downtown Partnership will help maintain it.

Urban Conga hopes the table is merely the first.

"We really want to not only create the activity with people of playing, but the spectacle of people playing," Swanson said. "What we're hoping is that it's only one table so I think people are going to complain that they want more."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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