Stark Reflects On 11 Years At The Helm Of GICA

Jim Stark
Jim Stark

Last month, Jim Stark marked his 11th anniversary at the helm of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), the trade organization that represents stakeholders and operators of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. And this week, during the annual GICA Seminar, set for August 4–6 in New Orleans, Stark will “hand the sticks” to his successor, Paul Dittman.

Both Dittman and Stark are retired U.S. Coast Guard captains. Stark served more than 28 years with the Coast Guard in a wide range of roles before coming to GICA.

A 1976 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Stark first served aboard a high endurance cutter out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He also served on an isolated duty station while in the Pacific. Following a tour on the West Coast on the 11th Coast Guard District staff in marine safety, Stark began the first of three Gulf Coast tours, with a first stop in Gulfport, Miss.

“I lived over in Bay St. Louis and got to know Bay St. Louis, Miss., the Gulf Coast and New Orleans pretty well,” Stark said.

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Stark later earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Following a tour at Coast Guard Headquarters in the budget and program department, Stark went back to sea out of Port Canaveral.

In the early to mid 1990s, Stark worked again at Coast Guard Headquarters for about seven years. During part of that stint in Washington, D.C., Stark served as chief of the drug interdiction program. Stark’s team was tasked, in part, with working on international agreements to allow for the boarding at sea of foreign-flagged vessels for counter-drug operations. That team would travel to the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, to advocate for implementing those agreements, Stark said.

“It was humbling and exciting to be involved at that level,” he recalled. “And I think we made a difference.”

Stark went back to graduate school again after that, this time at the National War College. From there, Stark served as the commander of the Coast Guard Group in Mobile from 1998 to 2001, then the chief of operations for the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami between 2001 and 2003. Stark said that assignment went by fast, in part because he and his wife had newborn twins during that time period and because of the fast pace of operations in that part of the world.

“The command center would call me and say, ‘Gosh, I hate to wake those twins up, sir, but we really need to talk about this,’” Stark recalled.

From there, Stark wrapped up his Coast Guard career as the chief of staff for the Eighth Coast Guard District in New Orleans from 2003 until his retirement in January 2005.

For the next five years, Stark worked in the private sector and in a civilian role. After Hurricane Katrina, Stark worked in operations and logistics for Titan Maritime LLC, a company that coordinated salvage and recovery work for vessels damaged or sunk in the storm. After that, he served as the assistant administrator for Gulf Coast recovery for the Federal Emergency Management Agency

“Talk about an eye opener,” Stark joked.

Then, for a few months in 2010, Stark worked as a consultant for response and recovery following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Managing Partnerships

Throughout his career, especially during his time with the Coast Guard, Stark said he learned how to integrate the needs and processes of many different stakeholders, whether it was the Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, other government entities or the maritime industry. All those skills prepared him to jump into the role of president of GICA in July 2010.

“Being able to bring those disparate pieces together for a common goal of having a safe and efficient waterway—I think those Coast Guard assignments prepared me well for that,” he said.

Reflecting on his 11 years at the helm of GICA, Stark celebrated the partnerships that have made the organization successful and helped improve the waterway, from its western boundaries in Brownsville and Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to the eastern end on the Florida Panhandle.

“I think GICA and our members are always looking to improve the safety and efficiency of our waterway,” Stark said. “Clearly, that’s because it’s the source of their income. We ship commodities up and down the waterway, up and down the river, and we want that canal to be operating at 100 percent all the time, so we can do that safely and efficiently.”

Both now and 11 years ago, Stark said, the primary challenges to that remain the aging infrastructure along the waterway, and GICA has remained steadfast in its commitment to partnering with local, state and federal entities to improve, and in some cases, eventually replace, that infrastructure. One example is the bridges that cross the GIWW.

“Our association, my predecessors and others, have worked hard to lay to groundwork to get some of those replaced,” Stark said. “Specifically, the Sargent Beach Bridge in Texas was replaced by TXDOT recently. The Galveston railroad lift bridge was modernized, and the passage through those two bridges there was widened to make it safer.”

Also in Texas, GICA has partnered on the studies for replacing the Colorado Locks and the Brazos River Floodgates. In Louisiana, there have been projects like the guidewall replacement at Calcasieu Lock and extended closures at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC). On two occasions during months-long closures at the IHNC Lock, GICA partnered with the Corps, Coast Guard and industry to establish an alternate route through the Chandeleur Sound, which saved many days’ worth of transit time for towboats heading east and west through that part of the waterway.

“One of the things I’m proud of is, through all of these issues, our industry has been consulted,” Stark said. “Our experts, who are the towboat operators and the port captains that actually know what it takes to get through these tough spots, are consulted on a regular basis as those designs and ideas are put forward.”

Stark noted that some of the vessel captains who work in the vicinity of Brazos River  and GIWW crossings are meeting with the Corps within the week to continue refining plans for replacing outdated infrastructure.

Joint Hurricane Protocol

Further highlighting the partnerships between GICA and waterway managers, Stark also pointed to the development of the Joint Hurricane Protocol, a collaborative plan for preparing for and responding to tropical storms and reconstituting waterways. That plan finds its origins in the days following Hurricane Katrina, but it’s been constantly refined in the years since.

“We’ve cemented its place in the greater overall response framework here on the Gulf Coast,” Stark said. “The Coast Guard, Corps, state and local governments recognize it as the blueprint for how to work through response and recovery of the waterway after a storm’s passage. We’ve activated the plan nearly every season, sometimes to a greater extent during one year than another. And I think it’s going to be with us for a long time.”

Stark said it’s another example of the “integrating role” GICA plays.

Throughout all those challenges, collaborations and successes, Stark said one thing that stands out as a constant has been the partnership and teamwork among members of the maritime industry.

“Though they’re competitors in the business world, they all come together for the common good of the waterway and the common good of the industry when needed,” Stark said. “I’m going to miss that. I think it’s kind of unique when you look across the other types of industries. It’s great that we can come together for the common good that maintains the safety, efficiency and operation of the waterway we all depend on.”

And it’s with that camaraderie in mind that Stark said this year’s GICA Seminar will be a bittersweet time for him.

He offered his heartfelt thanks to the members of GICA and to the organization’s leadership, who have supported him for the past 11 years.

“Thank you to the long line of board chairs who have given me the keys to this unique organization,” Stark said, “as well as the board members, most of whom have been with me these 11 years, and have supported me without any question the whole time.

“Similarly, I want to thank all the experts, as I refer to them: our members who operate daily on the waterway, who are always there to bounce ideas off of and get advice from on how to approach issues we need to fix on their behalf,” he added.

Stark, who has been working closely with Dittman this summer on the transition of leadership, will officially transfer command of the organization to Dittman on August 6 at the seminar. Stark said Dittman’s background, much like his own 11 years ago, has prepared him well to lead GICA into the future.

“Paul comes with a great background for this kind of job, having served in Baton Rouge and with the district staff, with the sector and up the rivers,” Stark said. “He’s got the operational piece down pretty well. He’s a good fit, and I don’t expect there will be any outward difference in the way GICA operates from the day I step out of the job and he steps into it.”

Stark said he’s looking forward to the next chapter of life, which will include adventures with his wife aboard their boat and time spent with their children and grandchildren.