Canberra's business community is pushing hard for a new convention centre, which for some ranks ahead of a tram as a priority for government spending.
Canberra CBD chairman Emmanuel Notaras said on Tuesday that a new convention centre in the city would be a "game-changer" and should be built at the same time as the tram if not before.
"The light rail is important for the city - intuitively I feel that the convention centre is more important," he said.
"It's a question of priorities. No one could argue that a modern public transport system is a priority in a growing town, but I personally think the priority should be refocused on the convention centre."
He was speaking after Chief Minister Andrew Barr delivered his first major speech to the business community at a Canberra Business Chamber lunch at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
The convention centre was pushed down the government's priorities for the Fluffy buyback, and Mr Barr says it would not be built in any case without federal funding.
But David Marshall, chairman of the tourism industry advisory council, said a new convention centre would be one of the biggest drivers of business tourism, along with direct international flights, and "should be fast-tracked".
"It's a matter of ratcheting up the position where the Australia Forum would be a priority," he said.
Mr Marshall said Canberra had the oldest convention centre of any state capital. "We're so far behind, we're just not keeping pace with even Darwin and Alice Springs. They have got far superior facilities."
He did not understand why the government was not saying "let's get this done as a priority". "It's not something that should be delayed five or six years - it should be done urgently."
Former Liberal chief minister Kate Carnell, now head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the challenge for the $783-million tram would be whether it could make a return on the investment.
"It's absolutely true that it will deliver jobs," she said. "It's a major piece of infrastructure ... but at the end of the day the challenge is return on investment. It's got to not lose too much."
But though she is not convinced about the tram, Ms Carnell offered her support to Mr Barr for his push to reform the city's buses, including the possibility of bringing in private operators. She said successive governments had tried everything else to make the buses work better.
In his speech, Mr Barr pushed the case for the tram, saying it was the right thing not only for the residents of the city's north but for everyone who drove to the city.
"If you drive up the [Tuggeranong] Parkway in the morning, do you really want to be turning right and merging with the thousands of extra cars from the thousands of extra residents that will be living in Gungahlin and north of the city in the years to come?" he asked, insisting that each tram took 200 cars off the road.
In 15 years, Gungahlin residents would face travel times of an hour to the city, and people elsewhere would see travel times blow out as they competed for road and parking space, he said.
Mr Barr said his government was "different from those that have come before". "I am leading a new government with a new focus, one that assertively promotes and supports business in these challenging times," he said.
He told the group he was personally making the case for direct international flights, with flights from Singapore estimated to be worth $88 million and 690 jobs to the local economy, and flights from Auckland worth $51 million and 395 jobs.
The government has been trying to persuade airlines to make the flights to Canberra for some time, but without success, despite an offer of funding in the 2013-14 budget for marketing and promotion.
Before the speech, Mr Barr said it required "challenging commercial negotiations", but he would continue the campaign. "This is never going to be an overnight success story," he said.
He announced a new "small-business innovation research program", involving government agencies setting aside money to work with small businesses on research partnerships, with more detail in the June budget.
- with Tom McIlroy
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